Raiders face huge challenge at Tennessee

Teams meeting for just second time Saturday

November 4, 2011 · Athletic Communications
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Rarely is there a game in the second part of a frustrating, disappointing season that will allow a team to regroup and get their fans excited. But Middle Tennessee’s Blue Raiders (2-5) have just such an opportunity on Saturday when they play the Tennessee Volunteers (3-5) in Knoxville.

Kickoff is set for 6:08 PM, Central Daylight Time, and the game will be televised live on Fox Sports South, with Bob Rathbun doing the play by play, Tim Couch offering color analysis, and Kristina Akra reporting from the sidelines. The game will also be available online at ESPN3.com.

The Blue Raider Network will broadcast the game live, with Chip Walters making the calls, and Kelly Holcomb offering his expert observations as color analyst. The game will be carried over Nashville flagship station WNSR 560 AM, and Murfreesboro flagships WGNS 1450 AM (with FM affiliates 100.5 and 101.9) and WMOT 89.5 FM. Web audio is available online at GoBlueRaiders.com, with Twitter updates at @mtathletics. Live stats may be seen at UTsports.com.

Tennessee has long been the premier football program in the state in the eyes of most, and any time an in-state team can knock off the Big Orange, it is classified as an upset. Middle Tennessee’s only visit to Knoxville ended in a 26-3 loss to the #4 ranked Vols in 2002.

If the Blue Raiders could upset the Vols in Neyland Stadium, much of the frustrations of the current campaign would go away, and the Blue Raiders could refocus on the remaining games. That will, of course, be a tall order.

Middle Tennessee Coach Rick Stockstill is quick to point out that the heart of the UT struggles this year has been a nightmare October schedule that saw Tennessee drop four games in a row to SEC powers, Georgia, LSU, Alabama, and South Carolina.

“We are excited to be playing Tennessee this weekend,” said Stockstill. “ It will be a great opportunity as well as a great challenge for us. Our players are looking forward to going over there to play. We expect there to be a great crowd and I bet we hear “Rocky Top” once or twice.”

Stockstill and UT Coach Derek Dooley have both experienced some of the same travails this season, including injuries to key players, and games in which their teams played well, but came up short. Middle Tennessee lost their two top running backs early in October, and has also had numerous injuries to linebackers and offensive lineman. Youth and inexperience have factored in as well, particularly on the defensive front seven, where freshmen and sophomores abound.

Offensively, the Blue Raiders have put up some pretty impressive numbers this season, leading the Sun Belt Conference in passing (290.4 ypg), rushing (172.0 ypg) and total offense (462.4). The Blue Raiders have also allowed the least sacks (4) in the conference this season as the veteran offensive line has done a good job of protecting quarterback Logan Kilgore.

Stockstill thinks it is very important that his Blue Raiders have a positive start against the Vols. “We’ve got to be able to move the ball, make some things happen, get it in the end zone early”.

The past two games illustrate Stockstill’s urgency in this facet of the game. At FAU two weeks ago, Kilgore hit on his first 19 passes for a school record and a 21-0 lead in the first quarter as the Raiders won 38-14. Last week, Louisiana-Lafayette turned the tables on the Blue Raiders, building a 21-0 halftime lead in Murfreesboro, then coasting to a 45-20 win.

Kilgore has thrown for 1,869 yards and 16 touchdowns, but has been intercepted nine times. His top receivers have been Malcolm Beyah (39 receptions/6 TDs), Tavarres Jefferson (28/209 yds) and Sancho McDonald (25/4 TDs)

While Tennessee’s defense has been solid, the Vol offense, without quarterback Tyler Bray and wide receiver Justin Hunter, has struggled at times.

“Part of that is because of who they have played,” pointed out Stockstill. “But they have also struggled a little in the passing game with both Matt Simms and now Justin Worley. When you are not as effective throwing the ball, it also hurts your running game. Tennessee has good enough people to run the ball.”

Stockstill believes that Tennessee will likely try to run the ball and out-physical his team, mixing in some play-action passes along the way.

“This will let them help their quarterback, keep him out of long-yardage situations. Now, they may come out and throw the ball all over the yard, but I think they will try to establish the run and play-action pass.”

This will be Middle Tennessee’s final non-conference game of the season. The Blue Raiders opened the season with a heart-breaking 27-24 loss at Purdue, then lost to Georgia Tech in the home opener, but bounced back to beat Memphis 38-31 in Murfreesboro.

Middle Tennessee will close the season with four Sun Belt Conference games, including a road game at UL-Monroe next weekend, and back home to face SBC leader Arkansas State on November 19th.

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