Friday, February 23, 2024



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By Matthew Giffin / Contributing Writer

“We’ve faced good quarterbacks, but this guy’s special,” Middle Tennessee Head Coach Rick Stockstill said on Monday at the team’s weekly press conference. Stockstill was referring to Western Kentucky phenom Bailey Zappe, whom the Blue Raiders will face on the gridiron this Saturday after traveling the “100 Miles of Hate” to Bowling Green.

The Hilltoppers have been on a hot streak the last three weeks, delivering beatdowns to Old Dominion (43-20), Florida International (34-19) and Charlotte (45-13). WKU even managed to hang with No. 16 University of Texas at San Antonio (46-52) in an epic offensive struggle. Zappe, who sits at the helm of the Hilltoppers offense, has led the charge in all of those games, producing anywhere from nearly 400 to well over 500 passing yards per game. He operates best in the pocket, a spot he normally doesn’t have to leave as one of the quickest arms in the conference.

Stockstill said, “They’ve probably got one of the most prolific offenses in the country, leading this conference in every passing category out there.” He’s not exaggerating. Aside from average yards per play, Western Kentucky currently leads in every positive passing statistic, per Conference USA.

But free safety Reed Blankenship is ready for the challenge Zappe will give his defense. “I’m excited to play against him. I love quarterbacks like this, gives me a chance to move around in the back end,” he said at the same press conference. At the same time, he says that if the Blue Raider defense hopes to get any stops against WKU’s air raid offense, everyone in the backfield will need to be locked in. He wants his guys to “cause a lot of chaos” by forcing Zappe out of the pocket and locking down the receivers. “He’s gonna be a challenge for us,” Blankenship said.

On the other side of the ball, MTSU’s fate is still up in the air. Last Saturday, starting QB Chase Cunningham went out of the game early with a leg injury, leaving Mike DiLiello and Nicholas Vattiato to take the remaining snaps. Since then, Cunningham has had an MRI, but Stockstill says the results for it haven’t come in yet. With the possibility that Cunningham won’t be able to play this weekend, Stockstill did not answer who he would start as quarterback. “I know it won’t be me!” he said.

Despite the situation, Stockstill kept positive. While acknowledging DiLiello’s faults, Stockstill still thinks DiLiello performed “okay” against Southern Miss. Stockstill also said Vattiato “really did a nice job for the first time ever playing” on Saturday.

Regardless of whoever starts on Saturday, it’s clear that Middle Tennessee will have to bring their best performance in every aspect of the game if they want to compete with Zappe and the Hilltoppers.

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