Needing just one more win to reach bowl eligibility for the first time since 2006, Middle Tennessee will face off against Florida International on Saturday at Floyd Stadium.
GoMiddle.com breaks down who and what to watch when the Blue Raiders and Golden Panthers tee it up.
THE BIG STATS
FIU ON THE GROUND- The common thread in FIU's two league wins has been the Golden Panthers' ability to run the ball. FIU was able to run effectively against both Louisiana-Lafayette and Western Kentucky and beat both opponents. The Golden Panthers couldn't muster any rushing offense against Troy, Arkansas State, and ULM, all losses. MT ranks fourth in the Sun Belt in rush defense, behind each of the three teams that has beaten FIU. If the Raiders play up to the level of the top rushing defenses in the league, FIU will be hard pressed to win.
RED ZONE PERFORMANCE- This is an interesting matchup that pits two two teams in the Sun Belt's upper half of red zone defense but the lower half of red zone offense. That indicates touchdowns could be at a premium in the red zone for both teams. MT has scored 14 touchdowns in 29 red zone trips. FIU has scored 19 touchdowns in 33 trips. The MT defense has only allowed 12 touchdowns to opponents in 24 red zone trips. FIU has allowed 20 touchdowns in 36 red zone defensive series. The team that converts more of its chances into touchdowns will have a big leg up toward victory.
YOU'LL KNOW IT'S GOING WELL IF...
KYLES IS PRODUCTIVE AGAIN- Running back D.D. Kyles has been a huge part of MT's last two wins and had a breakout game in last week's wild win over Florida Atlantic. FIU ranks only ahead of Western Kentucky in the Sun Belt in rush defense, so opportunities should be plentiful for Kyles to follow up with a third straight strong outing. His effectiveness on the ground provides a great balance to the offense and forces to defense to respect multiple rushing threats on the field at the same time.
MT'S FRONT OVERPOWERS THE FIU LINE- Middle Tennessee is the best pass rushing team in the conference, with 19 sacks in eight games. FIU is the worst pass protecting team in the conference, having allowed 25 sacks in eight games. That indicates the Raiders will have chances to make life miserable for FIU quarterback Paul McCall, who has been hit too many times already this year.
YOU'LL KNOW IT'S GOING POORLY IF...
MT CAN'T HOLD DOWN FIU'S RETURN GAME- The Golden Panthers lead the Sun Belt in punt returns at more than 13 yards per return. FIU is also the only Sun Belt team to have returned a kickoff for a touchdown this year. T.Y. Hilton, Jason Frierson, and Wayne Times have all shown explosive ability returning kicks and punts. MT showed last week that it can dominate a game in special teams by blocking kicks, but FIU has not had a punt or a kick blocked all year. Critical field position will be determined by who can generate more yards in the kicking game and that has been a strength for FIU this year.
FIU SCORES ON SHORT DRIVES- The Golden Panthers have quick strike capability and when that part of their game is clicking the offense can score a lot of points. MT has to make FIU execute on long drives for touchdowns, which will maximize the weaknesses of the FIU offense, namely its struggles to control the game on the ground. But if McCall is able to connect with his big play receivers on long routes, FIU can score enough points to pull an upset.
FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL GOLDEN PANTHERS: WHO TO WATCH
QB Paul McCall, 6-1/198, Senior
THE NUMBERS: 55.9 percent completion rate, 1,884 yards, 12 TDs, 7 INTs
WHY HE'S IMPORTANT: McCall is one of the better pocket passers in the league and he hurt MT last year with both his arm and his legs.
BEST CASE: MT hopes to be able to put heat on McCall and limit his time to scan the field. FIU has struggled to protect him.
WORST CASE: With time to throw, McCall can be very dangerous because he has explosive weapons on the outside to work with.
WR T.Y. Hilton, 5-10/175, Sophomore
THE NUMBERS: 462 receiving yards, 4 receiving TDs, 1 return TD
WHY HE'S IMPORTANT: Hilton is the Sun Belt's most explosive and versatile offensive weapon. He caught a long touchdown pass against MT last year.
BEST CASE: The Raiders hope to look back on this game with the knowledge that they didn't let Hilton single handedly beat them. He will make good plays but can't make game breaking plays.
WORST CASE: Big plays on offense and special teams are always a possibility when he is on the field.
DB Anthony Gaitor, 5-10/178, Junior
THE NUMBERS: 29 tackles, 3 TFL, 2 INT
WHY HE'S IMPORTANT: Gaitor controls the secondary for FIU and proved that last year with two interceptions and a touchdown against MT.
BEST CASE: Dwight Dasher has to be careful about throwing in Gaitor's direction. Gaitor also has to be neutralized when he tries to blitz.
WORST CASE: The worst case would be a repeat of last year, when Gaitor almost did enough to win the game against MT on his own.
WR Greg Ellingson, 6-4/190, Junior
THE NUMBERS: 430 receiving yards, 4 TDs, 15.9 yards per catch
WHY HE'S IMPORTANT: By the numbers, Ellingson is FIU's top big play threat on the outside. He has been effective as Hilton has had injury struggles.
BEST CASE: MT needs to neutralize at least one of Ellingson and Hilton. Ellingson has had a knack for big plays, but MT will try to limit him to a possession receiver.
WORST CASE: Hilton is hard enough to contain on his own, but Ellingson poses challenges with his size and deep threat ability.
LB Scott Bryant, 5-10/224, Senior
THE NUMBERS: 77 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 INT, 2 forced fumbles
WHY HE'S IMPORTANT: Bryant far and away leads the team in tackles and ranks third in the Sun Belt. He is the feature man in the middle of the defense.
BEST CASE: Bryant will try to force the issue and create momentum changing plays on defense. MT has to wrap up the ball especially when its near Bryant.
WORST CASE: Bryant is capable of getting tackles for loss, sacks, interceptions, forcing fumbles, and recovering fumbles. Trouble is always near when Bryant is around.