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Banged up Blue Raiders face hungry Tigers

In-state battle kicks off at 6 PM Saturday

September 17, 2010 · Athletic Communications

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. - Chances for a win when Middle Tennessee visits Memphis on Saturday night will hinge on inexperienced quarterbacks and the fervent hope for better defensive performances from each team.

It will be the third game in the renewal of the series that had previously been dormant since 1954. Middle Tennessee has won both games since the series resumed, 21-7 in Memphis in 2007, and 31-14 last year in Murfreesboro, increasing the Blue Raiders edge in the series to 14-7-1. Kickoff is set for 6 pm in 61,000-seat Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.

It will also be the third game that Middle Tennessee will be without star quarterback Dwight Dasher, the Sun Belt Conference preseason Player of the Year, who is serving a four-game suspension for an NCAA violation. In the two previous games against Memphis, Dasher had torched the Tigers for 730 yards of total offense, 461 yards passing and 269 rushing.

Without Dasher available, that leaves junior college transfers Logan Kilgore and Jeff Murphy, who have each started, and played every snap, in one of the first two games.

Kilgore, a sophomore, guided the Blue Raiders in a 24-17 loss to Minnesota in the opener, completing 13 of 18 passes for 172 yards and a touchdown in only 14:26 time of possession. He directed scoring drives of 78 and 77 yards in the final five minutes of the first half to erase a 14-0 Minnesota lead and bring the Raiders even at halftime.

Then he stumped his toe. Following a toe injury in practice prior to the game with Austin Peay, Kilgore was sidelined and Murphy, a junior, took the reins. He threw for 301 yards and ran for 59 more as Middle Tennessee evened its season record at 1-1 with a 56-33 win. Blue Raider head coach Rick Stockstill has not yet decided which quarterback will start, as both took snaps in practice this week.

Stockstill feels that Memphis is much better than the scores of their first two games would indicate.

"They will be the best team we have played so far. They have really good players on both sides of the ball. Offensively, they will present challenges we have not faced yet. It will be a tough, hard-fought game, which is what we like."

Memphis also has quarterback injury issues, with starter Cannon Smith not expected to play because of a concussion sustained against East Carolina last week. In his place will be highly-touted freshman Ryan Williams, who came in against ECU and engineered a strong second-half comeback, throwing for nearly 300 yards and three touchdowns.

A strong running attack has helped take the heat off of the Blue Raiders' inexperienced QB's. Senior Phillip Tanner, sophomore Benny Cunningham and junior D.D. Kyles have combined for 427 yards and eight touchdowns in two games.

Tanner, who is on the Doak Walker Watch List, has run for 202 yards and four touchdowns, with an average of 7.8 yards per carry. He is playing in his fifth season after suffering a season-ending knee injury against Memphis in the second game of 2009.

Much of the credit for the offensive numbers must go to Middle Tennnessee's veteran offensive line, led by senior Mark Fisher. Despite a series of injuries, the O-line has blocked well for the rushing game, and has not given up a sack in the passing game.

"Coming into this season, I thought we had the potential to be a really good offensive line, but we have not been at full strength the first two games, and won't be against Memphis," noted Stockstill. "Alex Stuart is still out, and Preston Bailey and Brandon McElroy are both banged up and likely will not play. Running backs Tanner and Cunningham have also done a really good job in protection."

The most disappointing facet of the offense for Stockstill so far has been turnovers.

"You can't get mad about every interception, because some of them are tipped balls, but fumbles are what really upsets me. It is all fundamentals. We have to do a better job of protecting the football."

Defensively, 2010 has been a slow start for Middle Tennessee, especially in their trademarks of turnovers and sacks. Middle Tennessee was 8th nationally in turnover margin last season, but is minus 2 in two games this year, and has posted only two sacks for 12 yards.

Junior linebacker Darin Davis has been a bright spot thus far, returning an interception 38 yards for a score against Austin Peay, and recording a career-high eight tackles vs. Minnesota. Cornerback Rod Issac also intercepted a pass against Austin Peay.

All-SBC place-kicker Alan Gendreau is off to a good start, hitting on 10-10 extra points and a 31-yard FG vs. Minnesota.

Saturday night's game will be broadcast live over the Blue Raider Network, with Chip Walters handling play-by-play and Kelly Holcomb providing color analysis. Bob Saunders is the producer. Radio affiliates are WGNS 1450 AM, 101.9 FM and WMOT 89.5 FM in Murfreesboro, WNSR 560 AM in Nashville and 103.9 FM in Bowling Green, KY.

There will be no live television for the game, but it will be shown via tape delay on Comcast 176 (Nashville Market) at 7 pm on Tuesday, Sept. 21st.

Follow the Blue Raiders on Twitter @MTAthletics for continued updates.