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September 1, 2009

Six pack: Can MT control the tempo?

One of Middle Tennessee's key focuses under new offensive coordinator Tony Franklin is mastering tempo. The Blue Raiders want to play fast and aggressive, but can they establish that tempo on the road Saturday against Clemson? GoMiddle.com breaks down that and five other game related items in the Tuesday Six Pack.

WHO WILL OWN TEMPO?: Middle Tennessee head coach Rick Stockstill said earlier in fall camp he was confident that his offense could reach his desired tempo by the season opener. We'll find out if that mission was accomplished on Saturday. The Blue Raiders want to play fast and times they will likely want to play really fast. Offensive coordinator Tony Franklin feels like his offense will have an advantage over any defense if it can control the tempo. What will be the biggest factors in determining how MT's attempt to control tempo is faring? It will likely show up in how the Raiders perform on third downs and how many big plays the offense can produce. If the Blue Raiders convert efficiently on third downs, the offense can keep the tempo moving and keep putting pressure on the Clemson defense. That potentially could make the Tigers more susceptible to giving up big plays if the tempo prevents them from substituting or wears them down.

WILL THERE BE A BREAKOUT?: In last year's season opener against Troy, freshmen wide receivers Malcolm Beyah and Sancho McDonald enjoyed a breakout game in their debut performances. Will there be a similar breakout effort from a new Blue Raider in this year's opener at Clemson? Chances of such a performance are probably not as likely this year with the game being on the road and the returning roster more experienced than what the Blue Raiders fielded in last year's opener. However, there are certainly breakout candidates to keep an eye on. Wide receiver Garrett Andrews is probably the most likely option as he will almost certainly have a couple of balls thrown his direction after impressing in his first fall camp. Defensively, it's possible that a couple of freshmen linebackers will get a chance to contribute as well.

IMPOSING HISTORY: Over the last three years, Clemson has not been a very hospitable host in non-conference home games. The Tigers are 9-1 in their last 10 non-conference games at Death Valley, with their only loss coming in a tight 31-28 setback to South Carolina 2006. In those 10 games, Clemson has averaged outscoring its opponents by a score of 48-13. Two of those games came against Sun Belt Conference opponents, a 54-6 win over Florida Atlantic in 2006 and a 49-26 victory over ULM in 2007.

LAST TIME: Middle Tennessee's only previous trip to Clemson came in 2003, when the Blue Raiders fell 37-14. The game was competitive well into the second quarter, as the Tigers held a 13-7 before a pair of touchdowns in the final 5:30 of the first half made it 27-7 at halftime. MT played well offensively in the game, but eight penalties were costly as the Raiders had trouble consistently finishing drives. Don Calloway, Eugene Gross, Kevin Davis, and Kelvin German combined to rush for 189 yards on 32 carries for the Raiders.

SPILLER EFFECT: For the Raiders to have a chance in this year's game, they will need to find a way to at least slow down Clemson running back C.J. Spiller. The Tigers are promoting their big play threat for the Heisman Trophy and with good reason. Besides his immense physical gifts, Spiller is so dangerous because of the number of ways he can impact the game. He scored 11 touchdowns last season in three different ways (7 rushing, 3 receiving, 1 kick return), threw an additional touchdown pass, and had nearly 1,800 all purpose yards. Clemson will probably want Spiller to touch the ball between 20 and 25 times in the game. The Tigers like running back Jamie Harper and he will get some carries in addition to Spiller's rushing load, but Spiller will likely carry the ball 15 times, catch another few balls, and is the lead return man on both punt and kick return teams. MT will need its best tackling performance to keep Spiller from making big plays. If the defense rises to that challenge, it will put more pressure on new Clemson quarterback Kyle Parker, who head coach Dabo Swinney would probably like to be conservative with in his first game.

KICKING GAME EDGE: On paper, the Raiders can feel confident about their advantage in both kicking and punting. Clemson is breaking in new starters at both positions, while MT will trot out veteran punter David DeFatta and sophomore kicker Alan Gendreau. DeFatta averaged 41 yards per punt last year and pinned 13 punts inside the 20 yard line. Gendreau only missed one field goal inside 40 yards last year and has had a solid fall camp. In five field goal attempts on the road at Power Six Conference opponents last year, Gendreau hit 4-of-5 field goals.


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