Caleb Luketic // Contributing Writer
Middle Tennessee (3-4, 2-1 C-USA) played host to the Florida International Panthers (3-4,1-2 C-USA) on Saturday afternoon in an important Conference USA matchup. The Blue Raiders came into Saturday on a three game losing streak and sat at just 2-4 and 1-1 in C-USA.
The Blue Raiders opened the game looking weak on special teams by allowing the Panthers to return the opening kickoff near midfield, a trend that would continue through out the first half.
“Our kickoff coverage was horrendous,” head coach Rick Stockstill said. “We didn’t kick very well, and when we did get a good kick, we didn’t cover very well.”
The first FIU possession was fruitless, as the Panthers decided to go for it on fourth down, failing to convert and turning the ball over on downs.
On the first play of Middle Tennessee’s first possession, Brent Stockstill dropped back and threw a ball to the left side of the field, hoping to connect with his receiver on a comeback route, but the ball was floated in the air and FIU defensive back, Richard Leonard, jumped the route.
Leonard had nothing but open field in front of him, but Stockstill didn’t give up on the play, and knocked Leonard out of bounds at the 1 yard line.
The MTSU defense stood tall at the goal line, forcing FIU to kick an 18-yard field goal to take a 3-0 lead.
On the Blue Raiders’ next possession, Jeremiah Bryson left the game with an apparent shoulder injury, which left only Desmond Anderson, a true freshman, and Kamani Thomas in the backfield for the Blue Raiders.
Middle Tennessee maintained possession for well over six minutes, as they went 80 yards in 15 plays. Anderson was the main work horse after Bryson went out with his injury on the drive, and Anderson found pay dirt in the middle of the first quarter to give the Blue Raiders the 7-3 lead.
“Our plan was to come in and throw it a bunch like we’ve been throwing it,” coach Stockstill said. “But [Desmond Anderson] is still a liability in the pass protection game, and we have to get him up to speed. But thats a part of the reason we didn’t throw as much.”
Florida International answered right back, after once again returning the kickoff to midfield, with a touchdown of their own. Quarterback Alex McGough found running back Alex Gardner for the 2-yard score to give the Panthers a 9-7 lead.
Middle Tennessee continued to rely heavily on the running game on their next possession, as Anderson once again found the end zone from 1-yard out.
“I feel like we came out and played MT ball,” offensive lineman Darius Johnson said. “I feel like we are back on track.”
The two possessions after Bryson was knocked out with an injury, Anderson had 13 carries for 53 yards and 2 touchdowns.
FIU had their own success running the ball as well. Gardner scored once again, bursting into the endzone up the middle to put the Panthers back up 16-14. Gardner ended the first half with 8 rushes for 63 yards and a rushing and receiving touchdown.
Kamani Thomas got in on the action in the backfield, as he took his first carry of the season in for a 15 yard score to put the Blue Raiders back on top 21-16.
“All week we’ve been practicing. It’s always the next man up,” Thomas said after the game. “Coaches put me in a good position.”
The Blue Raider kickoff coverage continued to struggle as they allowed the Panthers to set up shop once again near midfield.
The Panthers quarterback McGough found his man wide-open on the same possession for a 42 yard strike that set them up at the Blue Raider 2-yard line, but a holding penalty on the offensive line called the play back.
On the very next play, Mike Minter was able to snatch his first career interception that quickly swung the momentum back toward the Blue Raiders.
Stockstill and company took advantage of that interception by Minter turning it into six, as Anderson for the end zone for a third time on the afternoon.
“It felt … sensational. I’ve been working hard in practice,” defensive back Mike Minter said regarding his first career interception.
The Middle Tennessee defense struggled against the Panthers offense in the third quarter, but they stepped up and made huge plays when they needed to.
The Blue Raider offense stuck to the ground game trying to eat up as much time as they could. Kamani Thomas was able to find the end zone for the second time on the afternoon late in the third quarter, this time from 26 yards out to put the Blue Raiders up 35-19.
However, things got interesting in the fourth quarter, as Thomas put the ball on the ground, giving FIU life, down by just two scores. McGough led his team down the field to bring their deficit to eight late in the second half.
Florida International attempted at a comeback on their final possession, but they were not able to convert their fourth and forever with under a minute to go.
“It was a great win and I’m really proud of our team and the effort they played with today,” Rick Stockstill said.
Middle Tennessee heads to Louisiana next to take on Louisiana Tech on Saturday, Oct. 24. Kickoff is scheduled for 2:30 p.m.
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