Story by Elisha Nelson / Contributing Writer
The Middle Tennessee State University Blue Raiders (7-6, 5-4 C-USA) triumphed over the Toledo Rockets (7-6, 5-3 MAC) in Friday’s win in the Bahamas Bowl.
The Blue Raiders offense ended the first quarter with a 14-play drive conducted by true freshman quarterback Nicholas Vattiato, resulting in a touchdown pass to receiver Yusuf Ali. The star receiver ended the day leading MTSU in receptions with nine. The long and methodical drive took the wind out of the Toledo defense early on and put the Blue Raiders on a path to a high scoring second half.
Toledo’s response on offense was carried by quarterback Dequan Finn who was responsible for the Rockets’ first points of the game. Finn led the offense with a 90-yard home run pass to Matt Landers and followed the big score with a 40-yard touchdown run of his own, giving the Rockets offense a 14-7 advantage over the Blue Raiders.
That was the last of the Rockets’ success on offense though, as a field goal for the offense courtesy of a 49-yard interception return by Samuel Womack gave Toledo their only points scored until a minute left in the fourth quarter. The defense of MTSU made a strong second half statement when in the fourth quarter linebacker Zaylin Wood snagged a pass on Toledo’s drive, squashing what hopes they had to come back from a 28-17 deficit late in the fourth quarter. MTSU continues to lead the FBS in takeaways now with 32 on the year.
Senior linebacker and Blue Raiders star DQ Thomas led the team in tackles once again and added a tackle for loss to his total. But the second half surge can be accredited to the Raiders offense with Nicholas Vattiatio having an efficient passing day. Head coach Rick Stockstill has continued to use a two-quarterback system with the loss of Chase Cunningham, alternating between Vattiato and Mike DiLello throughout the game. DiLello gave the Blue Raiders the go-ahead score with a 17-yard touchdown run to begin the fourth quarter, making it 21-17.
With Toledo’s Dequan Finn being contained on the next two drives, Vattiato achieved another touchdown of his own by icing the game with a 59-yard flick to Jarrin pierce for the touchdown, with the final score 31-24. A second half surge by the Blue Raiders offense put them in the driver’s seat to get a very important bowl win for the program, making it their first win since 2017.
After the impressive win as a 10.5-point underdog, head coach Rick Stockstill had this to say about the win. “I’m really proud of our team,” Stockstill said. “The toughness, the guts, the competitiveness, the resiliency, the mental toughness they showed today was fun to watch. Winning a bowl game, you’re a champion, you’re Bahamas Bowl champion and these seniors, these guys, they can take that with them the rest of their lives.”
The impressive performance by coach Stockstill and the players could not have happened without the Bahamas Bowl Offensive MVP Nicholas Vattiato who completed 23-of-35 passes for
270 yards and two touchdowns, leading the Raiders to an upset and improbable success after first-string quarterback Chase Cunningham went down with a season-ending injury. The Blue Raiders will celebrate a meaningful bowl victory to end the year and look hopeful under the coaching of coach Rick Stockstill as he heads into his 17th season as the head coach of MTSU football.