If there was one thing the Blue Raiders needed to establish going into the Conference USA schedule it was a running game. MTSU football coach Rick Stockstill minced no words when he stated early in the week “Our running game stinks.” However, the Blue Raiders needed to find out if the running game was as bad as the first three games proved, or if it was just a case of being overmatched by Power 5 defenses. Saturday’s game against Bowling Green suggested that the latter was true.
After rushing for just 189 yards in the first three 2017 contests, the Blue Raider backfield exploded for 243 rushing yards against the Falcons on Sept. 23, and there was not a more pleasant surprise than true freshman running back Brad Anderson.
“Any time we can have a young guy step up and play the way that Brad did is big. He had a hell of a game,” stated quarterback John Urzua who got the start for injured quarterback Brent Stockstill.
Anderson not only contributed on the ground to the tune of 104 yards on just 16 carries, but he was also a key contributor in the passing game. Anderson caught all six of his targets for 98 yards, including a 64-yard touchdown catch up the middle during which he appeared to be the fastest player on the field.
Anderson was not the only contributor in the backfield, however, as Jocquez Bruce made his long awaited appearance.
Bruce originally committed to Tennessee as part of its 2015 recruiting class, however he decided to transfer that summer. After taking a required redshirt season, Bruce was expected to be a starter at wide receiver in 2016 before an ankle injury in camp ended his season.
“I’m just blessed to be out here. I’ve been battling ankle injuries for the longest. I just moved to running back, so they threw a lot at me, but I’m just blessed to be out here,” stated Bruce.
Bruce looked like he had been playing running back all along, as he found hole after hole in the defense on his way to rushing for 115 yards on 16 carries and a touchdown. Bruce only started practicing as a running back in the week leading up to Bowling Green. Coach Stockstill made the decision after Richie James went down with an injury against Minnesota last week to allow Ty Lee to return to receiver.
The defense once again proved to be vastly improved over last season. In last year’s match-up against Bowling Green, Falcons running back Josh Cleveland ran for more than 150 yards. This year the Blue Raiders held Cleveland to only 39 yards, and held BGSU to only one yard rushing as a team.
“If we can make any team one-dimensional we’re going to beat them no matter who it is. So, that is our main goal: to try to make them one-dimensional and stop the run,” stated cornerback Mike Minter.
Despite the incredible production out of the backfield, it really was the defense that starred in the game. The lone touchdown scored by the Falcons was due to a missed tackle that turned what should have been a five-yard pass completion into a 60-yard passing touchdown.
The Falcons were given possession in MT territory on two separate occasions, but the defense held them scoreless on one of those occasions and limited them to a field goal on the other.
In the end, the Blue Raiders came away with a 24–13 victory, moving them to 2–2 going into the C-USA schedule.
Defense Wants to Dominate
Since the dawn of the Brent Stockstill/Richie James era, it has primarily been the offense the has kept the Blue Raiders in games. However, thanks to injuries and a vastly improved defense, 2017 seems to be showing a changing of the guard.
Through their first four games versus FBS opponents last year, Middle Tennessee allowed 426 yards and 28 points per contest. This season through their first four FBS opponents those numbers have lowered to 335 yards and 24 points per game.
The new defensive philosophy seems to have made all the difference.
Under Tyrone Nix, the defensive scheme was more of a read and react philosophy that relied heavily on the defensive line providing the only pass rush. Unfortunately, over the last two years the strength of the defense was the back seven and the weakness was the front four. The lack of blitzing allowed running backs to run for yards before their first contact. On top of that, sacks were a rare commodity. And then, there was the soft zone coverages.
Too many times Blue Raiders fans saw opposing offenses throw to a man whose defender was covering a zone several yards away, which led to first down after first down. In this passive scheme, the Blue Raider defense would become so worn down late in games that big plays were easy to come by for the opposing offense.
Now that defensive coordinator Scott Shafer has introduced a aggressive scheme that requires the opposing offense to react instead, fans have seen a much more inspired defense. Through only four games, MT already has accumulated half as many sacks as they produced all of last season. They are currently on pace to record their third highest sack total in program history.
With the exception of the Minnesota game, which is the only game the opponent has posted more than 100 yards on the ground, the defense has been dominant versus the run as well. Currently they have allowed only 114 rushing yards per game, down considerably from 2016’s 198 yards per game. That 114 average is ballooned considerably due to the Minnesota game, as the Blue Raiders allowed only 57 rushing yards per game over their three other contests.
Most importantly, the Blue Raider defenders seem to be having a lot more fun out there, and no other Blue Raider is more excited about it than cornerback Mike Minter.
“It’s like an upgrade,” Minter declared. “Everybody just knows what to do. We’re more focused, we bring more energy. We’re trying to put some wild, crazy stuff on tape. So when you see us out there running to the ball, it’s because we want to cause a lot of havoc, cause a lot of chaos. We can’t be blocked. We got to go out there and dominate our opponent. We got to dominate. Instead of going out there and just being good or complacent, we got to dominate.”
Up Next for MTSU
The Blue Raiders will take to the road next week as they square off against Florida Atlantic on Sept. 30.
The Blue Raiders will travel to Boca Raton, Florida, on Saturday, Sept. 30, to take on the Owls of Florida Atlantic. One thing is for certain, they are hoping to avoid a repeat of last year, at least on one side of the ball.
In their 2016 home stand against the Owls, the game was completely void of defense. The combined score of 133 points fell just four points shy of setting a new record for points scored in an FBS regulation length game (Pitt and Syracuse happened to break that record on the same weekend). In that contest, Richie James and I’tavius Mathews each rushed for more than 200 yards for the Blue Raiders, while Devin Singletary eclipsed the same mark for the Owls.
Mathers has graduated and James is unlikely to return from the ankle injury he suffered against Minnesota, but FAU will have the services of Singletary. Yet, safety Jovante Moffatt is confident that the MTSU defense will do a better job of limiting the Owls rushing attack this season.
“We’re definitely a different defense this year,” says Moffatt. “The effort is there and we enjoy the scheme and are having fun. Guys are loving the playing style, so I feel like as long as we’re doing what we do best and doing what Coach Shafer asks us to do, we’ll be fine.”
Singletary won’t be the only threat the Owls possess in the backfield. Kerrith Whyte has taken roughly 25 percent of the handoffs for FAU, and has averaged 6.5 yards per carry in the process. Greg Howell has gotten slightly less of a workload, but has made it count to the tune of 12 yards per carry. Howell has been dealing with an injury throughout the week, but is listed as probable.
Defensively, it is difficult to gauge the Owls’ strengths and weaknesses. On paper it appears that FAU is capable of shutting down the passing attack, yet are susceptible to the run, but the offensive philosophies of their opponents makes those stats a bit misleading.
They opened their season against two very run-heavy offenses in Navy and Wisconsin. In those two match-ups combined they saw only 40 pass attempts compared to 122 run plays.
“When that happens you’re going to get some yards put up against you,” coach Rick Stockstill said of the Owls run defense.
Whichever way the Blue Raiders attack the Owl defense, they will likely be relying on quarterback John Urzua, receiver Ty Lee, and running back Brad Anderson once again. Not only are Brent Stockstill and James listed as questionable game-time decisions, but offensive lineman Chandler Brewer and receivers Patrick Smith and Shane Tucker are questionable as well.
The game will be broadcast on the Stadium Network, which you can find on digital channel 58.2. Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m.