Photo by Devin P. Grimes / MTSU Sidelines
In August, Middle Tennessee fans had plenty to be optimistic about.
Defensively, the revamping of the defensive staff with the likes of new defensive coordinator Scott Shafer and new linebackers coach Siriki Diabate, along with a good mixture of both veteran players and young talent, showed promise for improvement.
On special teams, Middle Tennessee returned both Cannon Rooker and Matt Bonadies to take care of the kicking game, and had guys like Shane Tucker, Lee, James and a few newcomers vying for time as returners.
Heading into December, things didn’t quite work out the way the Raiders hoped.
A multitude of injuries and a tough schedule yielded a 6-6 finish.
The silver lining to all the madness? MTSU was invited to play against former Sun Belt foe Arkansas State in the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl.
@MT_FB and Arkansas State will square off in the Raycom Camellia Bowl. Game to take place at New ASU Stadium in Montgomery, AL on Dec. 16 at 7:00 Central.
— Anthony Fiorella (@A_Fiorella74) December 3, 2017
The bowl invitation marks the third year in a row Middle Tennessee will participate in postseason play and the fourth time in the past five years.
Before the Blue Raiders head into the matchup with the Red Wolves, we breakdown the top three best and worst moments from the 2017 season.
In the midst of a three-game stretch against power five teams to open the year, Middle Tennessee pulled out a 30-23 win on the road against the Syracuse Orange.
Middle dropped their season opener just a week earlier at home by a final score of 28-6 against Vanderbilt, and many feared the possibility of an 0-3 start.
MTSU’s defense showed flashes of their potential, producing a safety, two turnovers and six sacks. Late in the game, the defense stonewalled the Orange on fourth down to ice the game.
Stockstill arguably had his best performance of the year, completing 22-36 passes for 269 yards and three touchdowns. This included the game’s final touchdown pass to Tucker with 6:46 left to put Middle on top 30-23.
The win was the fifth time that the Raiders took down a power five opponent under the guidance of head coach Rick Stockstill.
MTSU may have found their backfield of the future
After losing I’tavius Mathers to graduation, MTSU didn’t necessarily have a certain player in mind to be the “feature back” coming into the year.
Terelle West, Maurice Gordon, Tucker and Desmond Anderson were the names tossed around most among the offseason.
During fall camp, West suffered a knee injury and had to undergo surgery. West’s injury opened the door for Gordon to start in the Vanderbilt game.
After a poor performance by Gordon in week one, the Raiders went with Lee at running back in week two.
Needing a ‘sure thing’ to turn to, they gave freshman Brad Anderson a shot against the Bowling Green Falcons. The Alabama native didn’t disappoint, picking up over 100 yards in his first career start (107).
Over the course of the next few weeks, Anderson shored up the running back duties. Through the regular season, he garnered 491 yards rushing and scored three touchdowns, albeit they were all through the air.
With MTSU missing that ‘power back’ to finish off scoring drives, they found their answer in Tavares Thomas. The former linebacker was used exclusively as a goal-line back against Florida International, and had three rushing touchdowns in the 37-17 win.
Thomas’ nose for the end zone was a focal point for the offense through the latter half of the year. The Texas native found the end zone eight times in just six games in the backfield.
Needing a win to become bowl eligible, the Blue Raiders called upon West and he answered. Against Old Dominion, West galloped for 170 yards and scored two touchdowns in a decisive 41-10 win.
The ‘smash-n-dash’ combo of Anderson and Thomas will join West in 2018 to give the Blue Raiders three solid options in the backfield.
Defense improves leaps and bounds under Shafer
Middle Tennesse’s defense improved vastly across all fronts from a season ago.
Last year, MTSU’s defensive unit allowed 35.8 points per game, 198.7 rushing yards per game, 250.8 passing yards per game and
gave up a total of 465 points. In 2016, MTSU generated 19 turnovers (11 interceptions, 8 fumbles) and had 65 tackles for loss to pair with 26 sacks and 42 quarterback hurries.
Enter the Shafer regime in 2017. MTSU allowed only 291 points (24.2 per game), 136.6 rushing yards per game and 212 passing yards per game. While the Raiders fell off some in the turnover department ( 8 TOs), they picked up 88 tackles for loss and tied last season with 26 sacks.
Individually, linebacker Khalil Brooks led the charge. Brooks led MT with 15 tackles for loss (tied for fifth in school history with Jamari Lattemore and Anthony McCord) and 6.5 sacks (tied for third in school history with Danny Carmichael).
Against FIU, Brooks tied J.K. Saab’s school record with five tackles for loss. He also had a season-high three sacks and a forced fumble.
The injury carousel never stopped turning for Middle Tennessee, and it forced some big names onto the shelf.
In the backfield, the threesome of West, Anderson and Thomas all missed time this year due to injuries.
West missed the first five games of the season (knee), Anderson missed the final two(ankle) and Thomas missed the Old Dominion game due to an injury in overtime against Western Kentucky.
After the Marshall loss, James went down with a shoulder injury and was lost for the rest of the season.
Tucker and Isaiah Upton were also afflicted with minor injuries.
Along the offensive line, four of the five starters experienced nagging injuries including Chandler Brewer, Lucas Hamilton, Connor Trent and Robert Behanen.
On defense, Mike Minter, Malik Manciel, Ty Nix and Walter Brady were all bitten by the injury bug.
Offensive production drops off
After averaging close to 40 points per game on offense last year, the production dropped off significantly this season.
Middle Tennessee averaged just 24.8 points per game this season and saw a decline in other categories as well. In the passing game, they averaged 252.7 yards per game this season after throwing for 325.8 yards a contest in 2016.
On the ground, MTSU ran for 192.2 yards last season and 136.6 this season.
The Blue Raiders put up ten games of 30-plus points, six games of 40-plus points and had a staggering three games with 50-plus points.
In 2017 however, Middle put together six 30-plus point games and had only one 40-plus point contest.
Turnovers proved to be a consistent problem all year long. The Raiders turned the ball over 20 times this season (14 interceptions, six fumbles) and allowed 48 points off turnovers.
Another triple overtime loss to WKU
For the second season in a row, Middle Tennessee lost a triple-overtime thriller to rival Western Kentucky.
Last season, the Blue Raiders fell at home by a score of 44-43 after Rooker missed an extra point on the first possession of the third overtime.
This season, a missed field goal would do the Raiders in during the third overtime. After going three-and-out, Rooker shanked a 42-yard try with the game tied at 38, opening the door for Western to kick a game-winning 37-yard field goal to seal a 41-38 win.
Western Kentucky quarterback Mike White had one of the best games of his career, going 39-54 for 485 yards and five touchdowns.
WKU had a trio of receivers go over 100 yards and score a touchdown in the game. Nacarius Fant caught 14 passes for 101 yards and a touchdown, Kylen Towner had 4 catches for 105 yards and a touchdown and Lucky Jackson reeled in 14 passes for 101 yards and a touchdown.