Photo by Sarah Grace Taylor / Editor-in-Chief
The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders took home a hard-fought win on Saturday, defeating Florida International 42-35. Both offenses were on full display, as Brent Stockstill led the 9th-ranked offense in the nation to an early 21-0 lead. Richie James and Ty Lee each eclipsed the 100-yard receiving mark, with two scores each as well. FIU didn’t roll over, however, as they tied the game at 35 apiece late in the fourth quarter.
That’s when the defense took over.
D.J. Sanders picked off an Alex McGough pass and returned it 48 yards to the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown with 1:19 left in the fourth quarter. On the next drive, linebacker Chris Melton forced a fumble that Steven Rhodes recovered to seal the win for the team. For a defense that was quiet most of the day, it was these crucial plays that powered the Blue Raiders to their sixth win, and their fifth straight year of being bowl eligible.
Despite not playing as well as they wanted, the defense buckled down and made the necessary plays to win the game.
“We don’t quit man, we’ve got mental toughness,” Rhodes said. “That goes back to the summertime when practice was over and we were still running line touches on defense.”
For this defensive unit, making plays when they count are nothing new. They’ve experienced multiple games this year where the offenses took center-stage, while both defenses struggled. The difference in those games was that when the game was on the line, the defense tightened up.
In week four, cornerback Mike Minter deflected a fourth-and-goal pass from Louisiana Tech’s Ryan Higgins to complete a 38-34 comeback win for the Raiders. Higgins threw for over 500 yards in the game, but when the secondary was called on to make a play, they answered.
In the team’s 51-45 win at Missouri, the entire defense stepped up during the Tigers’ last two possessions to give coach Rick Stockstill his first career win over an SEC opponent.
The win over FIU is just the latest in a line of clutch performances by the defense. It shows that even if the game doesn’t go their way in the first three quarters, they can make the stops necessary in the fourth to close it out.
While Sanders’ interception is the most talked-about play from the game, Melton’s forced fumble was just as critical as it decided the game for good.
“We were expecting a pass, but something in me just told me they were going to run,” Melton said. “The running back got the ball, and tried to hit a hole. He cut back, I hit him with all I could, and just prayed to God. Whatever happens, happens.”
Even with plays like that, the defense realizes that Saturday’s performance was not their best and that they have to improve if they want to continue competing for the Conference USA Championship.
“Defensive-wise, we all know that we didn’t play our best game,” said Minter. “We know that we still have things we need to clean up and things we need to correct. I feel like we did enough to win the game on Saturday, but we still have to do a lot better.”
One aspect where the unit has been consistent all season is in their ability to halt offenses in the red zone.
“Our defense has done really well in the red zone. We spend a lot of time on it,” Coach Stockstill said. “You don’t get points for getting down there, you have to cross the white line. That’s the mentality of our defense, do not give them anything and make them snap it one more time.”
“In today’s world, the way sports are set up now, it’s just offense… No matter if it’s football, basketball or anywhere, it’s offense,” Minter said. “We, as the defense, can be overlooked at times, but we don’t care. As long as we go out there and we do our thing and get a team win, we are happy.”
The Blue Raiders will be back in action at Floyd Stadium on Saturday when they host the University of Texas-San Antonio Roadrunners in a Conference USA showdown. Kickoff is slated for 1:30 p.m.
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