Story by Matthew Giffin / Contributing Writer
Friday night, Middle Tennessee State University (1-3, 0-2 Conference USA) had the fight of their lives against the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (3-1, 1-0 C-USA), ending in a tragic 42-39 loss away from home.
After the departure of former starting QB Bailey Hockman, Chase Cunningham rose to the occasion and then some with his first-ever collegiate start as the new arm of the Blue Raider offense. He led the team with 379 yards passing and 65 yards rushing, and threw for 28-40 with five TD’s to five different receivers.
Things started slow for MTSU, ending with the 49ers leading after the first quarter 14-7, but the Raiders pulled ahead with a 75-yard drive TD, which included a rampaging 22-yard run from senior Brad Anderson. Zeke Rankin kicked in a 26-yard field goal to put Middle Tennessee ahead, 17-14. With about a minute left in the second quarter, it looked as if Charlotte would take back the lead going into halftime until Cody Smith smacked the ball out of the hands of 49ers receiver Elijah Spencer for a fumble recovered by MTSU freshman Zaylin Wood.
No one scored again until halfway through the third quarter after an 89-yard Charlotte drive and a toss from Chris Reynolds into the endzone. But the Raiders answered with yet another 75-yard drive and DJ England-Chisolm leaving his defender in the dust after a perfect pass from Cunningham. After that, the 49ers scored twice in a row to take back the lead, 35-24. In response, Middle Tennessee drove down the field another 75 yards and capped it off with a short touchdown pass, this time to senior Jarrin Pierce. To narrow the gap even further, the Blue Raiders succeeded on a two-point conversion, with Cunningham throwing to freshman Jaylin Lane in the endzone for the second time that night.
Reynolds scored the game-winning TD for Charlotte on a fourth and goal, one-yard charge that widened the lead once again to 42-32. The Blue Raiders made their fifth and final 75-yard drive down the field with junior Yusuf Ali receiving on the last touchdown. With just over two minutes left on the clock, the Raiders wouldn’t get the chance to score again with Charlotte keeping the ball until the buzzer.
Senior free safety Reed Blankenship made history by breaking MTSU’s career tackles record of 344 with 348 of his own. The old record, held by Roosevelt Colvard, stood unapproached since 1986. Before kickoff, Blankenship was already tied for fourth place for tackles among current NCAA players.
The Blue Raider defense struggled to contain the 49ers offense in general, and the running game showed little improvement.
On Saturday, October 2, the Blue Raiders will finally return to Floyd Stadium to face off against the Marshall University Thundering Herd. This will be a “blackout game” for MTSU fans. The school will also be hosting Family Weekend on campus, and there will be a Hall of Fame ceremony at the game. Kickoff will be at 6 p.m.