Photo by Devin P. Grimes / MTSU Sidelines
The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (5-6, 3-4) traveled to Bowling Green, Kentucky, to take on the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (6-5, 4-3) in the “100 Miles of Hate” rivalry. Both teams came into the contest with identical records and a lot on the line, but the Blue Raiders failed to clinch a postseason berth by becoming bowl eligible as they fell to the Hilltoppers in triple overtime by a score of 41-38.
The Hilltoppers received the opening kick and moved the ball nicely into Blue Raider territory on their first possession. However, on a fourth down, the Blue Raiders stuffed the Hilltoppers to give the ball to Brent Stockstill and his offense.
Stockstill wasn’t in sync on the Blue Raiders first drive and was held to a “three-and-out.”
The Hilltoppers offense was ignited by their short passing attack, and they took advantage of the Blue Raiders defense by methodically moving the ball down the field. Halfway through the first quarter, WKU quarterback Mike White dumped the ball off to Deon Yelder in the flat, and he tip-toed down the sideline to give the Hilltoppers a 7-0 advantage.
The Blue Raiders offense got into a rhythm after Stockstill escaped the pocket and improvised on a pass that moved the chains on third down. The drive fizzled out yet again however, and MTSU was forced to punt.
MTSU’s defense held their ground after allowing the earlier touchdown and remained physical in both their pass and rush defense.
The Blue Raiders managed to get the ball back, and Tavares Thomas started rolling. Thomas single-handedly moved the Blue Raiders into the redzone, but a costly holding call erased a Stockstill touchdown to Ty Lee. MTSU still put points on the board from a Canon Rooker field goal to cut the lead to 7-3.
While they moved the ball early in the game, the Blue Raiders’ lack of finishing drives was an ultimate factor in their loss.
“We didn’t make any plays early,” said head coach Rick Stockstill. “I can’t tell you how many deep balls we dropped.”
With seven minutes left in the first half, MTSU had an opportunity to take the lead. Stockstill found Shane Tucker for a big gain that would advance the ball into Hilltopper territory. Just as the Blue Raiders were beginning to exploit WKU’s coverage, Terelle West fumbled the ball, and MTSU came up empty on a very successful drive prior to the play.
The Hilltoppers struggled to regain the momentum they possessed to begin the game and punted once more before the end of the half.
The Blue Raiders received the second half kickoff and started at their own 35-yard line, but the defensive battle continued, and they were forced to punt.
White got the Hilltoppers in motion again and rediscovered their short passing success. Nevertheless, the Blue Raiders stepped up when the Hilltoppers were knocking at the door and forced a fumble to prevent WKU from extending their lead.
The defensive battle remained until the Hilltoppers connected on a broken play that placed WKU on the Blue Raiders’ 15-yard line. The Blue Raiders bent but did not break and held the Hilltoppers to a field goal, extending WKU’s lead, 10-3.
The Blue Raider offense stepped up when it mattered most, and Stockstill dropped a dime to Patrick Smith in the corner of the endzone to tie the game at 10.
On the following Hilltopper possession, White threw a pass that was called a lateral, and Darius Harris scooped up the ball to return it for a touchdown. Harris put the Blue Raiders up 17-10 and gave MTSU its first lead of the game.
“I didn’t hear a whistle so I was like, ‘I’m going to get the ball and let’s go,’ and I found myself in the endzone,” Harris said.
The Hilltoppers came right back with a counter-punch that tied the game up. White delivered a 65-yard bullet to Kylen Towner and left the Blue Raider defense in the the dust.
MTSU was forced to punt again on the following drive, and White unleashed another bomb, this time to Lucky Jackson for a 93-yard touchdown to give the lead back to WKU at 24-17.
The Blue Raiders were saved by a costly Hilltopper penalty that brought back a Stockstill interception on their next possession and allowed MTSU to continue the drive. Stockstill delivered critical passes and picked up a first down with his legs to put the Blue Raiders in scoring position. Thomas began to smell the endzone and bulled his way for another MTSU touchdown that tied the game at 24.
“I thought we established the run a little bit, and we were able to make some plays down the field,” Brent Stockstill said. “It’s just one of those games. You’ve got to keep pressing and pressing, and we did to give ourselves a chance.”
Following Thomas’ touchdown, neither team’s offense could sustain a drive and regulation ended with the game tied.
Overtime began with the Blue Raider offense having the first opportunity to score. MTSU converted on a third and long through the air, as Stockstill found Tucker to place the ball at the two-yard line, and Thomas ran it in for a 31-24 MTSU lead.
Penalties would cost the Blue Raider defense in overtime. Back-to-back calls against Middle Tennessee put the Hilltoppers at the three-yard line. White found his wide receiver off a beautifully designed play, and the game was tied for the fourth time at 31-31.
The Hilltoppers opened up the second overtime on offense and had momentum in their favor. White connected for his second overtime touchdown to flip the script and give his team the lead. The Blue Raiders would not go quietly however, as the game went into triple overtime with a West touchdown run.
The Blue Raiders received the ball first for the third overtime, but went “three-and-out” immediately. Rooker was brought on for a field goal attempt, but his kick was wide left from 42 yards out. The door was open for WKU to break the hearts of the Blue Raiders, and they did not miss the opportunity. Ryan Nuss nailed the field goal from 37 yards away, and WKU celebrated a 41-38 win over MTSU.
“This one’s tough. You try to say 24 hours, but this one’s gonna hurt,” Brent Stockstill said. “I think all those guys in (the locker room) are hurting pretty bad.”
The Blue Raiders will regroup, and Rick Stockstill had a simple message looking on to the final game of the season.
“Got to keep fighting,” Rick Stockstill said. “We have to keep playing, keep competing. We have one shot left next week. Be men, roll up your sleeves and go back to work.”
Blue Raider defense steps up
MTSU’s defense struggled on the opening drive, but made the correct adjustments and only allowed a field goal for the next three quarters. The Blue Raiders tallied five sacks, two turnovers and 11 tackles for loss. The defensive performance was impressive and critical in keeping MTSU alive throughout the game.
Reed Blankenship and D.J. Sanders anchored the defense. Sanders met White and the Hilltopper backs in the backfield during the game, while Blankenship and Khalil Brooks led the team in tackles with 11 and 12 respectively.
Although the Blue Raiders defense had a great outing, fatigue and momentum began to play a factor as the game ended. The unit failed to get off the field when it mattered most and gave up too many points in the final quarter and overtime.
Hot and cold offense haunts the Blue Raiders
The Blue Raider offense was on and off during the entire game. As soon as the offense began to click, a turnover, penalty or sack would squander the drive. Stockstill and the rushing attack were able to move the ball down the field, but only capitalized twice in the first three quarters.
In the fourth quarter, the unit had a pep in their step. They began to move the ball down the field with ease and were able to operate in enemy territory. The same story went for the offense as it did the Blue Raider defense however, in the game’s final moments of regulation. MTSU had a chance to seal the victory on two separate possessions, but was unable to deliver the dagger to end the game prior to overtime.
Lee had an outstanding performance with 11 receptions for 114 yards, and Thomas dominated on the ground with 18 carries for 92 yards, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. He also picked up good yardage through the air with 49 receiving yards.
Stockstill completed 58 percent of his passes for 294 yards and a touchdown.
The Blue Raiders will seek bowl eligibilty again next week. MTSU will face the Old Dominion Monarchs in their final game, with kickoff set for 2 p.m. on Saturday.
To contact Sports Editor Rusty Ellis, email email@example.com.