Blue Raiders fall short in home finale

MTSU football players wore special helmets as apart of the Salute to Veterans and Armed Forces. (Stephen Thomas / MTSU Sidelines)

Story by Elisha Nelson / Contributing Writer

Middle Tennessee State University (5-6, 3-4 C-USA) dropped their final game at home to Old Dominion (5-6, 4-3 C-USA) on Saturday after their late-game effort was stopped short.

Freshman quarterback Nicholas Vattiato started once again for the injured Chase Cunningham, with the Blue Raiders offense looking to capitalize on their dominant rushing performance from last week’s game.

The Blue Raider offense came away with a missed field goal attempt on their first drive, setting up a Zach Kuntz touchdown from Old Dominion QB Hayden Wolff. On the next drive, Jaylin Lane took a sweep pass from Vattiato which set up the early touchdown for the Raiders, tying it up at 7-7.

Things got chippy after an Old Dominion player was upended on the kickoff return, with unsportsmanlike conducts being handed out to both teams. Wolff continued to find his favorite targets following the penalties, with Kuntz and leading receiver Ali Jennings getting much of the action.

A Wolff overthrow in the red zone forced the Monarchs to kick for a field goal. Vattiato responded with an answer of his own with an impressive lob pass to receiver CJ Windham for a huge gain. The Raider offense settled for a field goal tied the score at 10-10 headed into the half, with little to show in their run game after a rough start.

The offense of MTSU continued its struggles to begin the second half. Midway through the third quarter Old Dominion defensive back Joe Joe Headen picked off an underthrown pass from Vattiatio. On the Blue Raider’s next drive, the field goal attempt was fumbled on the snap, coming away with no points once again.

“We left a lot of points on the board,” said Player of the Game Jaylin Lane following the loss, after being asked about the team’s missed opportunities in the red zone. “As an offense, we’ve just got to put the ball in the endzone, so that’s on us.”

Old Dominion looked to capitalize on the turnovers, with Wolff hitting Isaiah Page for a long gain. The next play turned into a 45-yard touchdown run by backup running back Elijah Davis with the go ahead score, breaking the tie at 17-10.

Following a quick three-and-out, the Raiders elected to punt early in the fourth quarter. The Blue Raider secondary continued to struggle downfield throughout the second half, with the very next play resulting in QB Wolff hitting Jennings in stride for a 60-yard gain. The run after the catch set up an easy touchdown reception for RB Watson and increased the lead to make it 24-10.

Needing an answer on the next drive and facing a large deficit, Vattiato and the Blue Raider offense put aside the short passing attack and went aggressively down the field, with Ali making a couple huge receptions to put Middle Tennessee in enemy territory. Vattiato hit Lane for a 26-yard touchdown, putting the game within one score with just over four minutes left to play.

The Blue Raiders opted to onside kick following the touchdown, which fell into Old Dominion’s possession. After three straight runs, Watson was stuffed by MTSU’s defense, forcing a turnover on downs and giving the Blue Raider offense one last possession to tie up the score.

The late game heroics by the Blue Raiders were not enough, for on the ensuing drive the ball was dumped off to Brad Anderson, who could not hang onto the football as linebacker Jason Henderson stripped the running back to force the fumble. Old Dominion fell on the football to gain possession with 2 minutes remaining. The final score was 24-17, with Old Dominion putting themselves into possible bowl eligibility after the impressive win.

MTSU players were dejected after a close loss in their final home game. “I told the team afterwards that we’ll find a way to bounce back,” said head coach Rick Stockstill, alluding to being one win away from a bowl game. “It’s disappointing, it hurts, it’s a gut punch.”

This Saturday, the Blue Raiders travel on the road to face Florida Atlantic’s Owls (5-6, 3-4 C-USA) to fight for their bowl eligibility after falling at home. It would make it the first time the Blue Raiders have achieved a bowl birth since 2018. Kickoff is set for 6:00 PM CST.

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