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MT-FAU Preview: Blue Raiders try to slow streaking Owls

September 17, 2004 · MT Media Relations
MURFREESBORO, Tenn. - Middle Tennessee will be looking to start the football season 2-0 for the first time since 2001 when it welcomes Florida Atlantic for the home opener Saturday at 2 p.m. at Floyd Stadium, and it appears Mother Nature is among those who are Blue Raider fans.

Reports of threatening weather from Hurricane Ivan were forecast to put a damper on the home opener, but Friday's weather report indicates sunny skies and temperatures in the upper 70s for Saturday.

The game has been designated Operation: Full House II as the Blue Raiders look to break the single-game attendance record of 27,568 set against Tennessee State in 1998. Operation: Full House II, presented by First Tennessee Bank, is in honor of former longtime professor Dr. Aaron Todd, who retired in May, 2003 and was later diagnosed with cancer in December, 2003. Middle Tennessee has averaged 25,390 in home openers the past two years.

"What Dr. Todd stands for and has meant to this university and community is something we all can learn from," Middle Tennessee coach Andy McCollum said. "He's been a loyal supporter and this university, community and our athletics mean a great deal to him. Here's a man who has been diagnosed with cancer and he's fighting a battle much greater than any athletic game that ever will be played, yet he's full of energy and hope. He's what it's all about and our players understand what this is all about. We've discussed it as a team."

Saturday's opener pits a pair of undefeated teams as Florida Atlantic (2-0), which becomes a Sun Belt Conference member in 2005, has gained attention by starting the season with road wins at Hawaii and North Texas. Middle Tennessee, on the other hand, beat Akron, 31-24, on the road last weekend.

"Florida Atlantic is a very good football team. It's no shock to us that Florida Atlantic has been able to go on the road and win two big games because we know what kind of athletes they have, what kind of staff they have and what kind of team they have," McCollum said. "We know what we face going in, but now I think everyone else does, too."

Florida Atlantic ruined Middle Tennessee's home opener in 2003 when it scored on the final play of the game to secure a 20-19 win, but returning Blue Raiders say revenge is not a motivating factor.

"We don't speak on that," Blue Raider receiver Chris Henry said. "We know we shouldn't have lost that game. They got luck at the end and came out with a win. The loss really killed our team. Florida Atlantic is a good team, give them credit. We just have to play to the best of our abilities."

The Blue Raiders came out of the gate strong to start the season and received superlative play in all three facets to secure victory at Akron. Heralded receiver Kerry Wright had a 75-yard punt return in that game and is ranked No. 1 nationally in punt returns entering the Florida Atlantic game. The Blue Raiders, who had controlled the game from the outset, lost the lead early in the fourth quarter, but Colby Smith's 28-yard field goal tied the game with 4:18 remaining before Eugene Gross scored his third touchdown of the game from 3 yards out to send Middle Tennessee to the riveting road win.

Middle Tennessee employed two quarterbacks in the win - Josh Harris and Clint Marks - and McCollum said to expect to see both signal-callers against Florida Atlantic. They combined to throw for 339 yards on 33-for-41 passing at Akron. The Blue Raiders are fifth nationally in passing offense (339) after the first game.

"I am very comfortable with the situation," said Marks, who came off the bench in relief of Harris. "We'll both prepare and work hard in practice. We compete and make each other better in practice each week. We just want to win and I am (Harris') biggest supporter when he is in the game, and I think he feels the same way when I'm there."

Several Middle Tennessee individuals are among the national leaders after one game. Receivers Chris Henry and Wright are No. 2 and 3, respectively, in receptions per game. Wright (93.0) is 29th in receiving yards per game and Henry is 46th (80.0). Gross is the national scoring leader after one game, averaging 18 points per game, while Wright is No. 12 in all-purpose yards (176.0). Defensive back Danny Tolbert is No. 7 nationally in interceptions and the Blue Raiders are 39th in rushing defense (103.0).

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