The first Tuesday night college football matchup of the season kicked off in Murfreesboro, TN.
Middle Tennessee had been on the wrong end of several crushing defeats this year and hoped homefield advantage would ring in its first FBS win of 2023. Battling a Louisiana Tech squad taking the field for its FBS-high eighth time this season, the Blue Raiders finally attained that goal. Louisiana Tech nearly erased a 15-point fourth quarter deficit, but Middle Tennessee’s defense held firm on the final drive to secure a 31-23 victory over the visiting Bulldogs.
The Blue Raiders’ offense was coming off a dynamic performance against Jacksonville State where quarterback Nick Vattiato fired for 408 passing yards, but several key mistakes — four second half turnovers and eight sacks yielded — caused a 16-point lead to quickly evaporate last Wednesday. Those mistakes were fixed as Louisiana Tech strolled into town.
Vattiato completed an efficient 23-of-29 passes for 248 yards and a pair of touchdowns, guiding Middle Tennessee’s offense to a turnover free night. The offensive line did a better job of supporting their quarterback Tuesday, allowing him to connect with Holden Willis for 103 yards and Elijah Metcalf for 59 yards, and both receivers notched a touchdown in the victory. Metcalf provided Middle Tennessee a 10-6 advantage in the final minute of the first quarter and the Blue Raiders maintained that lead for the remainder of the contest.
Louisiana Tech played from a step behind the entire second half. A critical momentum swing was observed when quarterback Jack Turner threw a critical interception in the end zone on the Bulldogs’ opening drive of the second half — a possession which maneuvered 70 yards downfield. Middle Tennessee free safety Tra Fluellen made an athletic snag in the end zone, denying Louisiana Tech of a potential tying opportunity with the score sitting at 17-9.
After Turner’s interception, Sonny Cumbie switched quarterbacks to Hank Bachmeier. The Boise State transfer was Louisiana Tech’s original starter this season, but he suffered a shoulder injury in Week 3 against North Texas, causing Turner to start four consecutive games. This was Bachmeier’s first action since the injury, and he nearly led Louisiana Tech to a double-digit fourth quarter comeback. He connected on 16-of-24 passes for 178 yards in the second half alone, making a highlight play on fourth and goal to keep the game within reach. He escaped a sack, rolled out to the right, and fired a 10-yard dart to running back Charvis Thornton in the end zone with 2:30 remaining to slice the deficit to 31-23.
Equipped with all three timeouts, Louisiana Tech’s defense forced an opportune stop, providing the offense with one do-or-die opportunity to tie — a very similar situation the Bulldogs faced last week against Western Kentucky. But once again, Louisiana Tech was unable to complete the quest. The all-important drive stalled at the Middle Tennessee 46-yard line on 4th and 4 when Bachmeier overthrew star receiver Smoke Harris toward the left sideline. Harris was one of the bright spots in the defeat, securing 11 catches for 103 yards to return to the top of the receptions leaderboard in the FBS. Wide receiver Cyrus Allen generated 103 yards on seven receptions for a passing attack which posted 340 yards in Murfreesboro.
But one crucial separation between the Blue Raiders and Bulldogs was third down efficiency. Middle Tennessee regularly moved the sticks, converting 10-of-16 third down opportunities while Louisiana Tech fared 3-of-13 in such situations. One factor contributing to the disparity was Middle Tennessee cornerback Tyrell Raby who provided excellent coverage with three pass deflections. Another factor was the Blue Raiders attaining more success on the ground. Running back Jaiden Credle chipped in 65 yards and a third quarter touchdown which established a 24-9 advantage, while Louisiana Tech didn’t see a single 40-yard rusher in the defeat.
Louisiana Tech (3-5, 2-2 CUSA) takes a step back in the conference standings after its second consecutive defeat. The Bulldogs are the first FBS team to complete two-thirds of their regular season schedule, and they’ll finally enjoy a much-needed respite before returning to action Tuesday, Oct. 24 when hosting New Mexico State.
Middle Tennessee (2-5, 1-2 CUSA) notched its first FBS win and first conference win of 2023. The Blue Raiders already tied their loss total from the previous season, but they hope the momentum gained Tuesday night can blossom into something greater going forward. Middle Tennessee resumes its CUSA slate next Tuesday in a challenging road matchup at undefeated Liberty.