This week's Dime Package efforts to put the loss to FIU in perspective, credits the defense for some major improvement over last year, looks back at the offensive outburst that took place between Middle Tennessee and Louisville a year ago, plus much more.
1) TAKING A STEP BACK-MT's road loss at FIU has several fans scratching their heads, but taking a quick step back off the ledge will reveal that the world is still spinning on its axis and there is no need for panic. Preseason expectations were tempered for this team due to a very young roster and a very thin offensive line that was predicted to struggle. Knocking off Maryland and playing Kentucky right down to the final play might have ratcheted expectations for this season a little high. The youth and depth factors still are much in play and inconsistency may be the norm for this 2008 season for those very reasons. A quick glance at the young skill position players on the roster and the development of key players at positions all across the board suggest good things for the future. And Rick Stockstill and his staff continue to work the recruiting trail like there is no tomorrow, which should help get the roster numbers, overall athleticism and talent level up.
2) NO NEED TO GIVE UP-Last week's loss at FIU was disappointing for the Blue Raiders for sure, but now is not the time to throw in the towel. MT has a pair of tough non-conference games coming before an open date on November 1st. The Blue Raiders, predicted to finish in the middle of the Sun Belt at the start of the year, look to be headed for exactly that. The luck of the draw gave the Blue Raiders some of the toughest conference games early in the schedule. Three of MT's final four opponents have yet to record a single win over a FBS opponent. The final game of the season against Louisiana-Lafayette could very well determine whether this season leaves a good or bad taste for fans.
3) HANDICAPPING THE SUN BELT RACE- With conference play underway, the league race has already separated itself into two distinct categories. Troy, Louisiana-Lafayette, Arkansas State, and Florida International are all undefeated and have a chance to win the conference title. Middle Tennessee, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, and Louisiana-Monroe are all but mathematically eliminated. So who has the easiest track to a title? Troy does if you go by the schedule. The Trojans get FIU, ASU, and ULL all at home down the stretch of the season. However, Troy must also prove itself without starting quarterback Jamie Hampton who is out for the year after being injured at FAU. Don't look for Arkansas State to be the team standing at the end. The Red Wolves have to play each of the three remaining undefeated teams on the road. Louisiana-Lafayette may be the team to watch. The Ragin Cajuns get both ASU and FIU in Lafayette but travel to Troy on November 22nd. That's the game we're circling as the most likely title showdown.
4) GENDREAU MAKES POSITIVE STRIDES- Blue Raider kicker Alan Gendreau was one of the bright spots of the 31-21 loss at FIU. He connected on both of his field goal attempts to improve his season numbers to four successful kicks in seven field goal tries. It is a positive sign that the freshman bounced back from struggles to have a good game on the road, particularly because it would have been a shame if the confidence he gained from a solid fall camp had evaporated due to first year difficulties.
5) RUNNING GAME GETS SOME JUICE- Phillip Tanner and Dwight Dasher combined to reenergize the running attack in last week's game at FIU. The two combined for 157 of MT's 171 rushing yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry combined. Tanner's two rushing touchdowns gave the Blue Raiders their first game this year of more than one rushing touchdown.
6) JUST IN CASE YOU'VE FORGOTTEN- The offensive fireworks from last year's Middle Tennessee/Louisville matchup probably still leave a thin layer of smoke and haze around Papa John's Cardinals Stadium. The two combined for nearly 1,300 yards of total offense, 691 yards of passing offense, and 13 touchdowns. The teams essentially traded touchdowns in the first half, but a Damon Nickson fumble on a kickoff allowed Louisville to build a 21-7 lead early. The Blue Raiders closed to within 38-35 at halftime and made it close again at 51-42 in the fourth quarter. The Blue Raiders rushed for 265 yards and passed for 290. The best defensive highlight of the game came when Bradley Robinson made a bone jarring hit on Louisville wideout Harry Douglas at the goal line in the second quarter to prevent a Louisville touchdown. The Cardinals ultimately had to settle for a field goal.
7) RUN DEFENSE QUIETLY IMPROVED- There was a lot of talk in preseason about the Blue Raiders' need to play better run defense in 2008 and they have so far met that goal. Most talk so far this season has focused on the offense's struggles to move the ball on the ground, but the defense is yielding just 3.9 yards per carry, a marked improvement over last year's run defense that surrendered nearly five yards per carry. The Blue Raiders rank 65th nationally in run defense. They finished last year ranked 102nd.
8) HALFWAY HOME- The season is now officially at the midway point and the Blue Raiders stand with a disappointing 2-4 record. However, only once in the last six years has the program done better than 2-4 in the first six games of a season. MT was 3-3 through six games in the 2006 season, but has been 2-4 or worse in every other year since 2002. MT started 1-5 in 2002, 2003, and 2007, and was 2-4 through six games in both 2004 and 2005. The Blue Raiders turned their slow start around last year by going on a four game winning streak starting with a road win at Memphis, ultimately raising their record to 5-5 before dropping the last two games of the season.
9) CRADDOCK STILL ON RECORD PACE?- MT quarterback Joe Craddock had what most would rank as the worst game of his college career at FIU. He threw for just 25 yards and tossed two interceptions before giving way to Dwight Dasher in the second half. The forgettable performance knocked him a hair below what had been a record shattering pace. Craddock went into the FIU game on pace to smash Clint Marks' 2004 record of 2,749 passing yards. After the loss to the Golden Panthers, Craddock is now on pace to close the year with 2,738 passing yards. He still has time to get his groove back, but Dasher may start getting more of the reps after his appearance against FIU seemed to charge up the running game.
10) ATTENDANCE KUDOS- MT is averaging 23,559 fans through three home games at Floyd Stadium, a tremendous number that merits plenty of congratulations. The fans deserve credit for coming out to the stadium in droves and the athletic department and marketing arm of the program deserve credit for developing successful promotions and strategies to keep the gate count on the upswing. MT could average barely 2,000 fans in the final two home games and still average more than 15,000 fans for the year. Remember when that used to be the big goal? Those days are long gone.