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FIU Football: Five Questions on Middle Tennessee State

FIU’s opens their home slate of games by welcoming C-USA rival MTSU to Miami on Saturday. I caught up with Blue Raiders’ beat writer Joe Spears of the DNJ in Murfreesboro.

Middle Tennessee v Florida International Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

FIU comes off its bye week looking to get a win in their 2020 home-opening game against Conference USA rival MTSU.

The Blue Raiders have won four out of the last five meetings, including a rain-soaked 50-17 over-powering of the Panthers last season at Floyd Stadium that saw FIU allow 471 rushing yards.

Rick Stockstill’s club are seeking to its first 0-5 start in Stockstill’s 14 years at the helm of the Blue Raiders.

I caught up with MTSU beat writer Joe Spears of Murfreesboro’s Daily News Journal for five questions on the team’s 2020 struggles.

Eric Henry: This season’s 0-4 start is the worst since 2007 for Rick Stockstill and MTSU. What’s the biggest reason for the team’s struggles?

Joe Spears: While they’ve had issues on both sides of the ball, the biggest issue for MTSU this season has been finding any sort of consistency on offense. Asher O’Hara has played much better in these last two games than the first two but he really struggled against Army and Troy and the offense has gone downhill since. It also doesn’t help that MTSU has had no presence of run game outside of UTSA. Similar to last year, the Blue Raiders have had to rely on O’Hara and his legs to get the ground game going because the backs just haven’t been able to produce. You add in the fact that outside of Western Kentucky, O’Hara also hasn’t run well either, you get the sort of offensive struggles MTSU has had this season.

EH: Outside of Asher O’Hara, MTSU’s rushing game has been virtually non-existent. Have you seen anything that leads you to believe that could change on Saturday?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 25 Middle Tennessee at UTSA
MTSU running back Jayy McDonald rushed for 138 yards in last year’s win over FIU.
Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

JS: Since the second half of the UTSA game, O’Hara has really upped his game and that includes what he’s done on the ground. Against Army and Troy, he rushed 63 yards on 24 carries with just one touchdown. Against UTSA, he rushed for 61 yards on 21 carries. Against Western Kentucky, O’Hara had his best rushing game of the season going for 98 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries.

Every game he’s gotten better rushing the ball and I do think that bodes well going into this weekend. Plus, I genuinely think Asher enjoys playing against FIU.

In 2018, he came in for an injured Brent Stockstill and rushed for 85 yards and a touchdown. Last season, he upped that going for 159 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.

It would benefit him to get the sort of help rushing in this game that he got in last year’s meeting between these two, but I think this could be the week he breaks out on the ground. Both Tony Franklin and Rick Stockstill have talked about the rushing game outside of O’Hara a ton this year and how they want to get their backs more involved.

However, that’s been a challenge as they’ve been non-existent for much of the season outside of UTSA. That was apparent against Western Kentucky as Chaton Mobley and Jayy McDonald combined only rushed for four yards on just eight carries. MTSU has to find some way of taking some of that stress off of Asher and get these guys going or it’ll be a repeat of last year and right now, I’m not sure if they can.

EH: Has it been surprising that the team is off to a poor start given the veteran coaching staff?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 25 Middle Tennessee at UTSA
Jarrin Pierce is the go-to guy at receiver for the Blue Raiders.
Photo by John Rivera/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

JS: It really is especially on the offensive side of the ball. Returning so many offensive weapons like O’Hara, Jarrin Pierce, Jimmy Marshall and so much more, it’s been weird to see this unit struggle so much. The defense has played well at times this year but it’s a young group. The real concerns here are on the offensive side of the ball and that’s troubling considering that this group was projected to be the strength of the team going into the season.

EH: The quarterback situation has been fluid at times this year. Should we expect to see O’Hara go the distance?

JS: A couple of weeks ago MTSU offensive coordinator Tony Franklin said he made two massive mistakes by pulling O’Hara in both the Army and Troy games. O’Hara’s gone the distance in both games since and that’s really paid off for MTSU. He threw two costly interceptions against UTSA, but played well enough in the second half to lead MTSU back and nearly tied the game in the closing minutes. Without O’Hara last week, MTSU would have been blown out. Out of MTSU’s 319 total yards, O’Hara accounted for 315 and had a hand in both touchdowns. His play has drastically improved since the first two games, but he does need some help from his running backs and he needs to continue to stay free of turnovers.

EH: MTSU is allowing 36.5 points per game. Is that a product of poor defensive play or more of the offensive struggles putting the defense in tough situations?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 19 Troy at Middle Tennessee
Miami native Gregory Grate Jr. will look to enjoy his homecoming at FIU on Saturday.
Photo by Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

JS: While the defense has been far from perfect, I think they’ve been put into some poor situations at times this year. Turnovers and short drives by the offense against Army and Troy had a tired unit back out on the field many times before they could even catch their breaths.

This group has been much better at getting to the quarterback and forcing turnovers compared to last year. Greg Grate has emerged as a standout corner and Reed Blankenship is back and healthy after suffering a nasty ankle injury last season at North Texas. Again, this unit hasn’t been great, but I don’t think the stats show just how bad of a situation they’ve been put in at times this year. A week after really struggling against UTSA, they showed up in a big way holding Western Kentucky to 20 points and giving MTSU an opportunity a chance to win in the end.