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Blue Raiders try to end North Texas' reign over Sun Belt Conference

October 23, 2003 · By Nate Rau / Special to GoBlueRaiders.com
MURFREESBORO, Tenn. - It's Blue versus Green for first place. It's as simple as that.

On Saturday, the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (2-5, 2-0 Sun Belt Conference) welcomes the North Texas Mean Green (4-3, 3-0) and the winning team will be alone atop the conference standings. Head Coach Andy McCollum says the game may be even more important in that a win by the Mean Green may secure a conference crown for the two-time defending champs.

"If [North Texas] wins this game, then they will be the Sun Belt champion," McCollum said. "We have all the respect in the world for North Texas and what they have done in this league.

"We have done a good job fighting back after starting out with a tough schedule, which every team in our league has to go through, and we have given ourselves an opportunity in this game."

Middle Tennessee is riding an emotional high, courtesy of a two-game win streak, capped off by a dramatic 28-21 over-time victory at Idaho.

"We're coming off a big win against a good Idaho football team," McCollum said. "Idaho is a tough place to play and a tough trip. We continued fighting and continued believing in ourselves."

The win didn't come easy, though, as the Blue Raiders lost star linebacker Brandon Lynch for the year. Two-time first team all-SBC offensive lineman Brandon Westbrook is also day-to-day. In their absence, Josh Willoughby filled in admirably at center and Kevin Copeland picked off a pass in overtime to secure the win for Middle Tennessee, while replacing Lynch.

"With only 85 possible scholarships, every loss is big, but Lynch is more than that," McCollum said. "He gets his work done in the classroom, he works hard on the field, he's a leader for this football team.

"Losing our center in the first quarter was a big loss, but it says good things about Josh Willoughby and what he was able to do in the game. He's got to be even better this week, though."

Key to beating North Texas will be stopping running back Patrick Cobbs, who is leading the league in rushing with 780 yards.

"(Cobbs) is the preseason player of the year in the Sun Belt and he's been showing it this year," McCollum said. "He can run and he sees the field well. He's a very physical back who can break tackles."

On the other side of the ball, running back Eugene Gross said the key for Middle Tennessee was to continue its execution and to get the Blue Raider faithful involved early in the contest.

"We just have to get things going offensively, one play at a time," Gross said. "We're on a winning streak and it's a big game, a home game, and that's big. We want to get our fans behind us and get things going in our backyard."

Way back in the preseason, North Texas was the pick to win the conference, but a Blue Raider win on Saturday may end the Mean Green's reign over the SBC. UNT has won 14 straight league games, which is the second best mark in the nation behind Miami, FL Big East run.

"We have said all along that the Sun Belt Championship goes through North Texas, and this is our next game," McCollum said. "They are the defending champions. But, every game is big. You want to win every game. "

Kickoff for the game between co-first place Middle Tennessee and North Texas will be at 6:05 p.m. on Saturday.

The game will be shown live on ESPN Regional as part of the Sun Belt Conference television package. The game will also be available on ESPN Gameplan. Locally, the game will be shown on CSS or Comcast Cable channel 27. ESPN GamePlan is available from satellite companies DIRECTV and DISH Network or your local cable company.

Nate Rau is a junior at Middle Tennessee. Reach him at NateRau9797@yahoo.com

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