It was a newsworthy December for Middle Tennessee State football, which started with the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl on Dec. 16.
Things did not get off to a great start for the Blue Raiders, as quarterback Brent Stockstill overthrew receiver Patrick Smith, resulting in an incredible one-handed interception by Arkansas State safety B.J. Edmonds. A 19-yard return by Edmonds started the Red Wolves’ offense at the MT 38, however the Blue Raider defense stood strong in the face of adversity and held Arkansas State to a field goal.
Things picked up on the next possession, however. After seemingly being held to a three-and-out, Arkansas State was flagged for roughing the kicker as the Blue Raiders punted, granting MT a first down at the Arkansas State 45-yard line. On the following play, running back Terrelle West for 45 yards untouched to the end zone.
The Red Wolves seemingly regained the lead on MT’s next possession, when it seemed Stockstill had thrown a pick six. However, Arkansas State defensive back Justin Clifton was controversially ruled down at the Red Wolves’ one-yard line.
From there the game played out as a stalemate, until late in the half when Darius Harris sacked Arkansas State quarterback Justice Hansen and forced a fumble in the process. Linebacker D.J. Sanders quickly followed behind, scooped up the ball, and ran it to the end zone for a touchdown.
Arkansas State recovered quickly, and scored on a 13-play, 85-yard drive. However, a facemask penalty against the Red Wolves during the ensuing kick return put the Blue Raiders on the 50. Another facemask penalty two plays later put the Blue Raiders within striking distance, and strike they did. Stockstill hit Ruben Garnett on a seam pattern up the middle for a 36-hard touchdown to give MTSU the 21–10 lead at the half.
The Blue Raider defense came out of the locker room strong and forced a punt after just four plays, and the MT offense took advantage. On a 73-yard drive that lasted nearly five minutes, the Blue Raiders took a commanding 28–10 lead. However, the Red Wolves would not go away quietly.
Arkansas State registered two unanswered touchdowns to pull within five points before Stockstill hit Shane Tucker for a 30-yard touchdown pass to re-establish a 12-point lead.
The Red Wolves struck again late in the fourth quarter on a 41-yard touchdown pass, but the Blue Raiders ate up most of the remaining clock on the following possession. With one minute, 27 seconds remaining in the game, Arkansas State still had a chance to walk away victorious. Yet, the Blue Raider pass rush came up big. D.J. Sanders and Jahmal Jones combined for a sack on the second-to-last play of the game, and then Darius Liggins reached the quarterback on the final play.
The MTSU Blue Raiders got their first bowl win since 2009, winning 35–30.
The next day, prolific wide receiver Richie James announced he will forego his senior season as a Blue Raider and enter the NFL draft.
James finished rewriting the Middle Tennessee record book for receiving this season, despite playing in only five games. He will leave Murfreesboro leading the Blue Raiders in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdown receptions.
Despite his accomplishments, James is likely to go no higher than the third round in the draft. At 5 feet 9 inches tall and 176 pounds, James’ stature will hurt him with the measurables-hungry NFL scouts. Having played at a mid-major will be a knock as usual, but NFL front offices should take note that of the 10 receivers leading the league in receiving yards, three of them finished their college career at a mid-major or FCS school.
James should be a huge steal for someone in the 2018 NFL, but he will be sorely missed in Murfreesboro.