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Raiders, Panthers tangle in Miami on Saturday

Kickoff is 5:04 PM on ESPN3.com

December 3, 2010 · Athletic Communications

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. - There is definitely a light ahead for the Middle Tennessee football team, but first the Blue Raiders must go through the tunnel.  The light, of course, is a spot in one of three bowl games that are affiliated with the Sun Belt Conference, but the tunnel is a game remaining with league-leading Florida International University in Miami on Saturday at 5 pm CST, a game that Middle Tennessee must win, or the light goes out.

The game will be broadcast live on the Blue Raider network, as well as on GoBlueRaiders.com, with Chip Walters (play-by-play) and Kelly Holcomb (color analyst) in the booth along with producer Jonathan Shaffer.  It will also be available on ESPN3.com and you can access live stats on FIUSports.com.  Also, the BRN pre-game, halftime and postgame radio shows will be held at Fanatics, with Dick Palmer and Duane Hickey hosting the shows.

Only two weeks ago, it did not appear that Middle Tennessee would have a shot at a second consecutive bowl game, as the Blue Raiders stumbled into mid-November with a 3-6 record and only one win in their last five games.  But a come-from-behind road win at Western Kentucky, then an impressive showing, perhaps their best of the season, against Florida Atlantic last week, has altered their outlook significantly.

“We have had great practices this week,” declared senior defensive tackle Dwight Smith.  “After putting together a win streak, we want to keep getting better and better.  We definitely have a little more confidence and swagger. 

FIU, like the Blue Raiders, came out of the gate slowly this season, losing their first four games, all to teams from the Big Six BCS conferences, three of which were on the road.  Since then, the Panthers have won six of seven games in Sun Belt Play, including a decisive 52-35 win at Troy, and have locked up the conference title.

“FIU is extremely fast on defense, and very athletic.  They want to force you into a lot of mistakes,” said Coach Rick Stockstill. “They lead the conference in total defense and scoring defense.  They are also second in sacks.

“Offensively, they have probably the most explosive player in the league in receiver T.Y. Hilton, who also returns kicks, and will line up at quarterback in the wildcat formation.  You have to know where he is at all times.”

He was both the Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Week as well as the Special Teams Player of the Week after the Panther’s overtime win against ULM on Nov. 6th.  Defensively, senior defensive back Anthony Gaitor has twice been named Defensive Player of the Week.

Both teams will carry win streaks into the game, as well as momentum.  FIU will go to a bowl game win or lose, Middle Tennessee only if they win.

For the Blue Raiders, it is the defense and the revitalized running game that has sparked the late-season surge.  While it has obviously been a team effort, senior cornerback Rod Issac and junior linebacker Darin Davis have been named as the conference’s Defensive Player of the Week for the last two weeks.

Another player who has stepped up is senior tackle Jarrett Crittenton, who blocked a field goal attempt at WKU to seal that win two weeks ago, and has seven tackles for loss and four sacks, most of them in the last two weeks.

The running game, paced by senior Phillip Tanner has turned up the burner in the last three games.  Tanner had his fifth career 100-yard game last week against FAU with 150 yards on 15 carries.   He ranks fourth in the SBC in individual rushing.  As a team, the Blue Raiders are third in the conference at 184.4 yards per game, a half yard behind FIU in second place.

Middle Tennessee’s Eric Russell and the Panther’s T.Y. Hilton are among the best return men in the league, with Russell having a kickoff return for a touchdown.  It is almost a dead heat in placekicking with FIU’s Jack Griffin hitting 38-38 extra point attempts, while Alan Gendreau has hit 37 of 38, with one blocked.  He has hit 10-12 field goal attempts, with Griffin nailing 13-16.

Overall, it appears that the teams are pretty equal at this point in the season, and the team that wants if more and protects the football will be the one to come out on top.  Home field advantage favors FIU, since neither team has ever won a game on the other’s turf.

Blue Raider network affiliates are Nashville flagship WNSR 560 AM and the Murfreesboro flagship station is WMOT 89.5 FM.

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