This Week in Blue Raider FB: Raiders claim first Sun Belt title
Counts and Hicks carry MT to strong season in 2001November 6, 2013 · @MTAthletics
November 3, 2001 - Blue Raiders lock up share of first Sun Belt Title
Middle Tennessee made the transition to Division 1-A football for the 1999 season. The Blue Raiders were among a group of schools to make that jump around the same time, creating the need for a new 1-A football conference to accommodate them.
The Sun Belt Conference jumped at the chance, deciding to add football as a sport by 2001. The conference consisted of Arkansas State, Idaho, Louisiana, Middle Tennessee, New Mexico State, North Texas, and ULM for football that season.
Middle Tennessee came into the year with a combined 9-13 record as a 1-A Independent team in 1999 and 2000. Head coach Andy McCollum wanted to change that record for the Blue Raiders, and it started with a decisive 37-28 victory over Vanderbilt in Week 1. Middle Tennessee won six of their first eight games, putting them at 6-2 heading into the early November meeting with the then Arkansas State Indians.
It would be the final Sun Belt game of the year for the Blue Raiders, as they finished the season at LSU and at home against UConn. MT was sitting at 4-1 in conference play, the only blemish a three-point loss to North Texas on the road. With the Mean Green having a conference record of 3-1 heading into the weekend, the Blue Raiders still controlled their destiny and would wrap up at least a share of the conference crown with a win.
Middle Tennessee scored early and often. Dwone Hicks got things going on the ground, as he capped the first drive with a 19-yard touchdown run to put the Blue Raiders up 7-0. Four plays later, MT defensive back Randy Arnold picked off a Tommy Miller pass and returned it 20 yards to the Arkansas State 26-yard line. It took the Blue Raiders all of one play to put more points on the board, as quarterback Wes Counts found Hicks with a 26-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the drive. Hicks scored the two-point conversion and Middle Tennessee led 15-0 to start the game.
The scoring barrage continued for the Blue Raiders. They added a 47-yard Brian Kelly field goal and 1-yard Hicks touchdown run that capped a 13-play, 64-yard drive to take a 25-0 halftime lead.
After a nice defensive stand to start the third quarter, Middle Tennessee forced a short punt from Arkansas State and started their first second half possession on the opponent's 38-yard line. It took Tyrone Calico all of one play to rush the necessary 38 yards to pay dirt, and the Blue Raiders took a 32-0 lead.
Arkansas State then dug in their heels. Their following drive took 13 plays, covered 64 yards, and was capped by Miller's one-yard touchdown run. The two-point try failed, but Arkansas State was on the board, down 32-6.
But if ASU thought their score would lead to a comeback, they were sorely mistaken. Wes Counts ran for the next Middle Tennessee touchdown from one yard out. A two-point conversion made the score 40-6 at the end of the third quarter.
Two more touchdowns, a 29-yard Kendall Newson reception from Jason Johnson and a one-yard run from Reshard Lee, made the final score 54-6 in favor of the Blue Raiders. The win meant Middle Tennessee finished the conference slate 5-1. They split the final two games of the season to finish overall 8-3 in their first year in the Sun Belt Conference.
A bowl game looked like a possibility for the first eight-win season since 1994. However, the loss to North Texas loomed large. Both teams finished with a 5-1 conference record, and even though the Mean Green finished just 5-6, they had the tie-breaker over the Blue Raiders which earned them the spot in the New Orleans Bowl in December.
But all was not lost for Middle Tennessee. They celebrated a share of the first Sun Belt Conference football title. They also won the very first Sun Belt Conference football game, a 38-20 victor over ULM on September 22.
It took the Blue Raiders five years to get back to bowl eligibility, but no one can take away that first conference trophy. Fast-forward now to 2013, and the Blue Raiders have a chance to do it again. Sitting at 5-4 overall and 3-2 in the conference, the Blue Raiders are just one game behind East Carolina for the East Division lead and a trip to the Conference USA Championship game.
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