By David Chamberlain // Contributing Writer
The Blue Raiders (2-2, 1-0) traveled to Champaign, Illinois, for a big non-conference test against Illinois (3-1, 0-0). The two teams came into Saturday at different ends of the spectrum after week three. The Fighting Illini were blitzed last weekend in Chapel Hill for their first loss of the year, after only giving up three points in their first two games.
The Blue Raiders were coming off of a historic win at home, a 73-14 thrashing of Charlotte in their C-USA opener.
Illinois received the opening kick and quickly drove down the field. Wide receiver Geronimo Allison set up Illinois after a 42-yard catch that put the Illini in Blue Raider territory during the first minute of the game. Shortly after, quarterback Wes Lunt fired a strike to Malik Turner for a 5-yard touchdown that put Illinois up 7-0.
The Blue Raider offense struggled to get in scoring range in the first quarter, having drive after drive stall. With first and goal inside the Illinois 10, the Blue Raiders once again struggled to capitalize, settling for a 43-yard field goal following multiple losses on second and third down.
The Illini defense was relentless and kept the Blue Raiders high octane offense under control. Both teams failed to move the ball much in the second quarter, but a blocked punt by Illinois increased the lead to 14-3.
The Blue Raiders then found the spark they needed. They downed a punt at the 1-yard line and the Illini fumbled in the endzone. The Blue Raiders forced a safety and on the following possession, Brent Stockstill connected with Richie James for a 63-yard touchdown pass. They quickly found themselves back in the game, cutting the lead to two.
After the Blue Raiders forced Illinois to punt, Brent Stockstill fumbled and set the Illini offense up again, leading to a field goal just before halftime.
Both teams were at a standstill for most of the third quarter, but the Illini struck first in the second half. Illini running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, the key for the offense on the day, found the endzone to push the lead to 24-12.
The Blue Raider’s offense was struggling for most of the third quarter as well but at the start of the fourth, they flipped the script. Brent Stockstill went to Ed’Marques Batties for most of the opening drive in the fourth quarter. The senior out of Fresno was huge for the Blue Raiders in the second half.
Batties ended the day as the new receptions record holder, breaking the mark of 12 set in 1991. The senior finished with 13 catches for 175 yards and a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns.
The Blue Raider defense stepped up and locked down Illinois’ offense, forcing another punt. Batties and Stockstill continued to connect on the drive that seemed to seal a win. Stockstill threw a 22-yard strike to Batties for the touchdown that gave the Blue Raiders a 25-24 lead with four minutes left in regulation.
The Illini offense continued to find yardage, and with just over two minutes left in the game, Taylor Zaweski nailed a 55-yard field goal to regain the lead.
It came down to the wire as the Blue Raiders had two minutes to travel the length of the field. Stockstill never wavered in the pocket in the last couple minutes, completing multiple fourth down passes to extend the drive. With just eight seconds left, the Blue Raiders sat at the Illinois 26 with a chance to win the game. Kicker Cody Clark, who made a 42-yard field goal in the first half, pushed the game-winning field goal attempt wide left, and the Blue Raiders left with a loss.
The loss puts Middle Tennessee at 2-2 on the year as they return to Murfreesboro to prepare for a homecoming showdown with in-state opponent Vanderbilt on October 3. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m.