Photo by Chandler Shrode / Staff Photographer
When the season began, the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders prepared for their year knowing they were without some of their primary weapons. Players like Terry Pettis, Shane Tucker and Jocquez Bruce all suffered injuries and expected to be lost for most of, if not the entire, season.
This could have hurt offense as they were Stockstill’s go-to receivers. But anyone had doubts of how well the passing game would be before the season started, they were all put to rest following the Alabama A&M game. Different players stepped up and took on roles that no one could have expected. With the “next man up” mentality, the receiving core has played a huge part in helping the team to its best start to a season since 2001.
The Blue Raiders are sitting at 4-2 and despite their heart-breaking setback against Western Kentucky, the team goes into Columbia, Missouri to take on the Missouri Tigers knowing that they can still control their destiny. James has been just as reliable this year as he was in his Freshman All-American campaign, pacing MTSU with 57 catches, 776 yards and five touchdowns.
Freshman Ty Lee has been a consistent target for Stockstill as well, recording 30 catches for 302 yards and four touchdown grabs of his own. While James and Lee have been the catalysts of the position group, the rest of the receiving corps has been very productive as well.
Guys like Desmond Anderson, Dennis Andrews and Patrick Smith contribute in more ways than just the stat sheet as they bring the lock-in mentality that the team needs.
“We have guys that can rotate, we have guys that know what they’re doing,” Anderson said of the next man up mentality. “They come out here to work hard. We go and watch film all the time. We know what we have to do to lock in and key in on plays.”
In last Saturday’s game against WKU, James was the primary target the entire day, finishing with a school-record 16 catches for 223 yards. Lee had a productive second half as well, grabbing eight passes for 73 yards. For the receivers behind James and Lee, they realize while they might not touch the ball as often as those guys, they know that any play can be one that decides the outcome of the game.
Andrews, who made a tough grab in the back of the end zone to give MT the lead in the second overtime on Saturday, said that it’s important for every player to be ready in case their number is called.
“It just teaches us to just keep taking it one play at a time. The next play is the best play,” Andrews said. “[We] just have to focus on the details.”
Andrews’ touchdown grab against WKU was his third score of the season while Smith is third among wide receivers with 20 catches while adding two touchdowns of his own. While Anderson only has one touchdown, he’s made crucial plays such as his 23-yard reception last week that helped set up the offense up on one of their scoring drives.
This coming game against Missouri will be the Blue Raiders’ toughest test of the year. While they aren’t the top dogs in the SEC, the Tigers boast one of the more talented secondaries the Blue Raiders have faced. Defensive backs John Gibson and Aarion Penton have recorded three interceptions each for the Tigers, who are tied with Florida for the SEC lead in team interceptions with 10. As they will likely key in on James and Lee, the other receivers can see that they will have to once again step up to help this offense enjoy the same success it has had thus far.
“We have got to do what we do every week and just come out and play hard,” Smith said of the role of the receiving unit. “We got to give all we got on every play.”
In a year where nearly every MTSU program has had a statement win of some sort, this may be the Blue Raiders last chance for a signature win of their own. Even without a major win up to this point, playing in an SEC stadium is nothing new to MT as they’ve played against Vanderbilt earlier this year and visited No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide in 2015.
“[We] just can’t take any plays off,” Andrews said. “There’s a couple plays that mean more than the any other play during the game and you never know which play that’s going to be. Every play, we have got to give 100 percent because the play you get the ball might be the play that makes a difference.”
The Blue Raiders will battle the Tigers tomorrow starting at 3 p.m. and can be viewed on the SEC Network.
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