Blue Raiders lead early but fall in Hawaii Bowl

Photo by Tyler Lamb / Sports Editor

Middle Tennessee (8-5, 5-3 C-USA) was seeking their second-ever bowl win Saturday night when they went up two touchdowns against the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors in the Hawaii Bowl (7-7, 4-4 MW). The Blue Raiders showed promise early on, but faltered down the stretch, leading to a 52-35 loss.

The Blue Raiders came out on a mission in the opening 10 minutes of the game. The MTSU defense forced two Hawaii 3-and-outs, capitalizing on both for touchdowns.

The first score of the day was cashed in by running back I’Tavius Mathers. The senior finished off the 4-play, 75-yard drive with a 20-yard scamper into the endzone.

The second touchdown came in the form of a flea flicker as Mathers took the handoff and tossed it the ball back to Stockstill who sent it to receiver Richie James who trotted in for the 51-yard score.

Through the first two offensive possessions for each team, MTSU had earned 140 total yards compared to UH’s -11.

On the ensuing MTSU drive, Stockstill was hit from his blind set, forcing the ball free where Hawaii recovered it.

Just plays later, UH quarterback Dru Brown threw an 18-yard strike to Metuisela ‘Unga to get his team on the board. The score was all they needed to jumpstart their good play.

Hawaii would score four straight unanswered touchdowns before MTSU could blink. The sequence included two interceptions, one of which that was a returned for a 68-yard score.

Down 28-14 with nothing going their way, the MTSU offense methodically moved the ball down the field nearing the end of the first half. The group stayed patient and with big plays from James, got the ball down into scoring position. Stockstill then found  Lee who shook a tackle out on the flat for the 3-yard score to cut it to within one score.

Hawaii would, however, punch through one more score before the end of the half to make it 35-21.

The Blue Raiders would come out flat in the beginning on the second half as they would punt and allow UH’s Rigoberto Sanchez to knock through a 23-yard field goal.

Stockstill and company wouldn’t bow out as he concluded a 7-play, 75-yard drive with a short touchdown strike to Lee for his fourth catch of the day.

Hawaii would deliver a dagger in the MTSU defense on the ensuing possession as they converted on a fake punt and another 4th down play en route to a 12-yard ‘Unga reception for a touchdown.

The teams would trade touchdowns once more as MTSU was never able to slow down Hawaii long enough to make a comeback.

The 52 points by Hawaii were the most they have scored in a game this season and the most they have put up in a bowl game since 2004.

“I think it was execution as a whole,” said Linebacker Darius Harris said about the defensive effort. “Doing the right thing, doing your job. It’s a unit, you can’t rely on one person. We have to do our job, do it right and be in the right spots to make a play.”

After returning from a broken collarbone, Brent Stockstill threw for 432 yards and four touchdowns, his fourth 4-TD game of the season. He also accounted for three key turnovers that led to Warrior touchdowns.

Stockstill favored his left shoulder during the third quarter after delivering a block for Andrews. The quarterback said he is fine and that it shouldn’t be used as an excuse for his play.

“It was fine, no excuses. Obviously, I played pretty bad in the first half. I wasn’t ready I guess and it took me awhile to get settled in. But no excuses with the shoulder.”

“Give credit to them. They did a heck of a job on defense. They were physical, they changed up looks, that kind of thing.”

Richie James and Ty Lee led the receiving corps as James hauled in eight catches for 162 and a touchdown while Lee snagged 10 catches for 100 yards and two scores.

James finished the year four receptions shy of breaking his own school record of 108 set in 2015.

I’Tavius Mathers finished out his college career with 52 yards on the ground and one touchdown.

Harris lead the defense in tackles with 9, including 3 TFL and one sack.

Senior Jeremy Cutrer also tallied seven solo tackles.

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