Friday, September 22, 2023

Takeaways from MTSU’s season-opening loss to No. 4 Alabama


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Featured photo by Erin Douglas

Story by Calvin White

Tuscaloosa, AL- Middle Tennessee opened its 2023 college football season on the road against No. 4 Alabama in Bryant-Denny Stadium. There are multiple positives and negatives that head coach Rick Stockstill can take away from the season opener despite losing 56-7. 

1. The defensive line is really good.

Multiple times throughout the game, the Blue Raider defensive line pressured or sacked the Alabama quarterback. Johnathan Butler and Parker Hughes each recorded a sack while Marley Cook and Quindarius Dunnigan recorded a tackle for loss. MTSU delivering pressure on the quarterback against arguably Alabama’s best offensive line in recent years shows flashes of potential for the Blue Raider defense. 

“I’ve got a lot of respect for those guys. They played their tails off,” Stockstill said. “There’s a lot of toughness in that group and there’s a lot of guys who played a bunch of snaps. If they just keep working, they’ve got a chance to be a really good unit.” 

2. The MTSU offense has to limit penalties.

Several Blue Raider offensive drives were stalled due to penalties. MTSU racked up nine penalties for 84 yards. Stockstill’s squad has to be able to move the ball down the field cleanly, not only to score points but to avoid putting the defense in short fields. Penalties are a big reason the Blue Raider offense got backed up in its own territory multiple times and was forced to punt and give the Alabama offense ample opportunity to score. If MTSU limits the penalties on offense, Nicholas Vattiato and company can demonstrate offensive coordinator Mitch Stewart’s explosive offense. 

“It was a lot of two steps forward, one step back,” said quarterback Nicholas Vattiato. “Positive play, then a penalty, whether it was pre-snap or post-snap. It’s drive killers at the end of the day.”

3. Nicholas Vattiato will be really good this season. 

Despite what the stat sheet says, quarterback Nicholas Vattiato made some really nice throws in tight windows against an elite Alabama secondary while also recognizing when to pull the ball down and use his legs. Vattiato rushed for 33 yards on 11 carries while throwing for 127 yards and a touchdown on 21-for-32 passing. Vattiato is a smart player who knows when and where the ball needs to go on any given play. In his first full season as the starter, Vattiato will settle in nicely by the time Conference USA play rolls around. 

“We made some good plays in the end. We had some nice explosive plays,” Vattiato said of the MTSU offense. “I like where we’re at but there’s also a lot of things that we can fix and hopefully get it out of our system.” 

4. Eliminate big plays on defense

Giving up big plays plagued the MTSU defense all last season and should be written in bold letters in the film room by defensive coordinator Scott Shafer. Several Alabama receivers were able to beat their defender one-on-one for an easy touchdown catch. Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe threw three touchdowns to three different receivers on consecutive drives to extend the Crimson Tide’s lead to 42-0 just after halftime. 

“We’ll have to look at the film and see why,” Stockstill said of the MTSU defense giving up big plays. “Part of it is they (Alabama) were a lot faster than us and we’ll have to look at the film and see if we were fundamentally and technically sound.” 

One game does not define a season, especially a season-opener against one of the premier programs in the nation. The Blue Raiders lost by a wide margin but there were some positive and negative takeaways. The good thing for Rick Stockstill is that the negative takeaways are fixable and can help the Blue Raiders improve week-to-week. 

“I was proud of our team and how we fought and competed,” Stockstill said. “We played extremely hard and when you play teams like this (Alabama) you have to play perfect and we didn’t play perfect but I like our team. I told them we’re going to have a heck of a team and a heck of a year.” 

Calvin White is the sports editor for MTSU Sidelines. If you have information for a story, you can contact him at For more news, visit Also, follow us on Facebook and Instagram @mtsusidelines, or on X @MTSUSidelines. 

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