Blue Raiders host Mean Green Saturday

Protecting the football will be top priority

November 12, 2010 · Athletic Communications

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. - Middle Tennessee and North Texas have one of the most heated rivalries in the Sun Belt Conference with the Mean Green holding a 5-4 edge in the series. The teams will play for the 10th time on Saturday afternoon at 2:30 PM in Floyd Stadium, with both seeking to gain as much ground as they can during the last one-third of the season.

The game will be the annual Salute to Veterans Day, with members of the armed forces in the spotlight in halftime ceremonies. The game will be broadcast live over the Blue Raider Network, with Chip Walters and Kelly Holcomb handling play by play and color analysis, and Bob Saunders will be the producer. The game will also be available on ESPN3.com as well as ESPN GamePlan.

Winning this game won't be easy. If this was a bowl game, it would be sponsored by the Tennessee Orthopedic Alliance, and the Grand Marshal would be Dr. Tom Johns. Both teams have had more than their share of injuries, and will come into the game with make-shift lineups.

Both Middle Tennessee and North Texas have played four different quarterbacks, with each team losing two QBs for the season. And both the Blue Raiders and Mean Green have seen two starting centers go out, and both have had other key injuries as well.

But Coach Rick Stockstill of the Blue Raiders does not feel like injuries are the primary contributing factor to his team's fortunes in 2010. Instead, Stockstill points to turnovers as the biggest reason for the teams' struggles so far.

"You cannot control the injuries," pointed out Stockstill. "The thing that frustrates me the most is our inability to protect the football. We have turned it over an inexcuseable amount of times. We have also not been able to stop people on defense. These are the things we can control."

Mike Canales noted that turnovers have forced North Texas to have to play catch up. He also said that giving up big plays had been a problem early in games. In eight of their nine games so far, the Mean Green has given up a touchdown on its opponent's first possession of the game. Troy scored on the very first play against UNT last week.

If they can hold onto the ball, both offenses have big-play, quick-strike abilities. Middle Tennessee's senior quarterback Dwight Dasher has thrown for 710 yards in four games, but has tossed 10 interceptions and lost two fumbles. Stockstill noted that Dasher has to make better decisions and not try to do too much himself.

North Texas and Middle Tennessee are the two top rushing teams in the Sun Belt. As a team, the Blue Raiders are averaging 179.2 yards per game, just behind the Mean Green's 187.6.

UNT's Lance Dunbar is second in the league in rushing, and 14th nationally with 102.6 yards per game. Middle Tennessee's Phillip Tanner is 4th in the league in rushing, and the game could come down to a duel between Dunbar and Tanner.

"Dunbar is the best running back in the conference," declared Stockstill. "He is a very physical runner. We have to stop him. Our first job on defense will be stopping the run."

Tanner's greatest game at Middle Tennessee came two years ago when he shredded the North Texas defense for a school record six touchdowns, five of them in the first half, in a 52-13 triumph. He also returned the second half kickoff 92 yards for his last score, earning Walter Camp National Offensive Player of the Week honors.

Last year, Middle Tennessee jumped out to a 30-7 halftime lead in Denton, but had to hold on as the Mean Green mounted a comeback to cut the lead to 30-21 in the third quarter. Ultimately, the Blue Raiders prevailed 37-21.

If the game turns into a shoot-out, look for Dasher and North Texas QB Riley Dodge to be the engineers. Dodge, a sophomore, started at quarterback last year, but was moved to wide receiver this season because of a shoulder injury. After UNT lost two QBs early in the season, Dodge went back under center, and is playing well. Against Troy last week, he threw three touchdown passes in the second half. Between Dunbar and Dodge, the Blue Raider defense will be severely tested.

One of the individual battles that will be going on will be Blue Raider senior offensive tackle Mark Fisher going against the Mean Green junior defensive end Brandon Akpunku. Fisher noted that Akpunku was a really good player and very fast with his hands, but "I go up against Jamari Lattimore every day in practice. With him, there is not much I haven't seen."

Middle Tennessee's kicking game will be in good hands, or feet. Freshman Josh Davis leads the Sun Belt in punting with a 47.4 average, while junior Alan Gendreau is the All-Sun Belt Conference place kicker from last year. He has hit a 55-yard field goal this season.

Affiliates for the Blue Raider Network include Nashville flagship station WNSR 560 AM, as well as Murfreesboro flagships WGNS 1450 AM and WMOT-FM 89.5. Live statistics as well as web audio will be available on GoBlueRaiders.com.

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