With a chance to play spoiler in the CUSA East Division race, the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders play host to the Marshall Thundering Herd. This is a bit of a weird game as the 3-5 Blue Raiders are actually a three-point favorite versus 8-1 Marshall.
While a loss to Marshall is not the end of the world, it does force MTSU to run the table versus FAU, North Texas, and UTSA. That is not the most daunting end of the season and should see the Blue Raiders get to at least six wins.
What do the Blue Raiders need to fix in order to be a bowl team for the first time since 2013 and the fifth time in FBS team history.
While there are many things that need to be fixed on a 3-5 team, it all comes down to running the football, stopping the run, and eliminating the big play.
The Blue Raiders head into this game with the #110 ranked defensive rushing success rate in the nation. A defense that gives up 4.0 yards per carry and 142.4 yards per game on the ground cannot be successful on a regular basis. It is surprising that teams have not rushed the ball at higher rates, but considering the teams on their schedule that are a bit pass happy, it makes more sense.
Linebacker is where the Blue Raiders must see improvement. T.T. Barber (55 tkl, 6 tfl, 4 sacks) is a force at the position and will have a chance to make an NFL roster, but tends to be better as a pass rusher than as a run stopping linebacker. Cavellis Luckett (43 tkl), Trey Wafford (30 tkl), Darius Harris (29 tkl), and D.J. Sanders (26 tkl) all need to step up and make better reads, turning five yard runs into three yard runs.
11 interceptions in eight games sounds amazing on paper, but what tends to get lost is the number of times the secondary is burnt trying to make a play. You don't want to take all of the aggression out of a secondary, but when you can give up a shorter pass with solid coverage and get off the field, take it.
It has been a bit stunning to see NFL prospect Kevin Byard (47 tkl, 2 int) look out of sorts in the secondary. The Blue Raiders secondary, in general, has been guilty of going for the pick, missing it, and watching the receiver go 60 yards for a touchdown.
With a quarterback that is a redshirt freshman, the entire offense should not be on his shoulders. Brent Stockstill has been excellent with over 2,400 yards in the air, as well as 18 touchdown passes. Even so, an offense that only averages 3.5 yards per carry is not cutting it. Injuries have hurt the run game, but Desmond Anderson (56/263/4TD) has emerged as a good running back. MTSU has done a much better job lately of balancing the offensive attack with the run/pass percentage down to 48/52.
Finally, and most important, the Blue Raiders need to get off to quick starts. In losses to WKU and Louisiana Tech, MTSU started slowly on both sides of the ball and inherited a huge deficit early in the game. They may be able to get away with it versus FAU, North Texas, and UTSA, but a slow start is a death sentence versus a team like Marshall.
I firmly believe that with a conference record seven bowl tie-ins, the Blue Raiders will go bowling with six wins.