Middle Tennessee used a powerful offense, suffocating defense, and a big play on special teams to roll over Arkansas State 38-14 on Saturday.
Quarterback Dwight Dasher hooked up with nine different receivers and threw a touchdown to three different receivers as the MT offense generated 427 yards, the third highest total allowed by the Red Wolves this season.
It was another balanced effort by MT, as the running game validated its recent success by performing well against the Sun Belt's second ranked run defense.
D.D. Kyles ran for 80 yards to lead the team, which had 164 total yards on the ground.
The offensive outburst even surprised head coach Rick Stockstill, who has plenty of respect for the Arkansas State defense, which surrendered more points to MT than any other Sun Belt team this season.
"I'm really surprised at the score," Stockstill said. "Their defense has been really good this whole year. They haven't given up a lot of points. We're playing better offensively ... We didn't have any (big runs). We got 7,8,10 yard runs to get (164 rushing yards). When we can run the ball like we have the last month ... and Dwight is throwing the ball like he is we are really tough to contain."
Dasher made just one mistake in the game, a floating interception in the third quarter near the goal line. Almost all of his other throws were right on point though, including touchdowns to Chris McClover, Harold Turner, and Garrett Andrews.
The throw to Turner was a soft 12 yard fade pattern to the corner of the endzone. He connected with Turner down the left sideline for a 32 yard score and then hit Andrews over the middle for a 7 yard touchdown.
"I thought he was really good with the throws that he made," Stockstill said of Dasher. "The touchdown to (McClover) was a great throw. It was press man coverage and he threw a really nice ball, just a beautiful throw ... and the post throws into the middle of the field were big league throws. I thought he threw the ball really well."
Two of those post throws Stockstill recalled went to Andrews, who twice broke free in the middle of the field on deep routes.
"They play cover two a lot and I looked the safeties off," Dasher said. "Garrett worked hard to get open and I knew he was going to be open. I looked (the safeties) off a bit and that's when he came open and I hit him."
Third down defense terrorizes ASU
Arkansas State converted just 3 of 14 third downs against the swarming Blue Raider defense, which was particularly aggressive on 3rd-and-long situations.
The Red Wolves ran a total of 11 third down and fourth down plays when they needed at least seven yards.
On those 11 plays, MT recorded three sacks and an interception, didn't allow a single conversion, and pushed ASU back a combined total of -15 yards.
"We are aggressive," said defensive end Chris McCoy, who had one of the team's four sacks. "We just want to make plays on third down and fourth down when they try to go for it. That's what we do. We are an aggressive defense and we just try to make plays."
"We don't care what (the opponent) is going to run on third down," linebacker Danny Carmichael said. "We are going to only worry about us and that is our mentality. Offenses know that we are going to come after them and they have to stop us. We do a great job moving around and confusing the quarterback and the line. That's our mentality. On third and fourth down, that's what we take pride in. We work really hard on it in practice. We have very competitive practices on third downs and that's what Middle Tennessee defense is about."
Arkansas State netted just 220 yards of offense against the Blue Raider defense, which scored a touchdown on a picture perfect play by Jamari Lattimore and Jeremy Kellem.
Lattimore scooped a third quarter ASU fumble and began rumbling toward the endzone for what looked like it might be his second defensive touchdown in as many weeks. As he was about to be tackled from behind, he made an accurate lateral to Kellem, who waltzed in the final 15 yards for the touchdown that made the score 38-7.
That play didn't happen by accident.
"Each day we start out practice with a turnover circuit trying to create turnovers," Stockstill said. "We actually practice the lateral. That is something we practice. We didn't just all of a sudden invent it here today. We did it in practice and started doing it in August. If you look at Jamari's touchdown last week, the first thing he was thinking was that he was going to toss it to Alex (Suber) but he had the touchdown."
Block party continues
Defensive tackle Brandon Perry blocked an ASU field goal attempt in the second quarter to keep the score 17-0 in MT's favor.
It was the team's fifth blocked field goal this season, providing yet more evidence of how hard MT works on making big special teams plays in practice.
"We emphasize the kicking game more than any place I have ever been," Stockstill said. "In some years, you can spend a lot of time on it and not get any blocks. Other years, you can spend an equal amount of time and get blocks so it's been a great effort on our players' part in blocking kicks."
The bowl campaign is on
It seems very unlikely that the Raiders would be left out of a bowl game regardless of whether or not they beat ULM next week on the road.
But Stockstill isn't taking anything for granted when it comes to postseason. He spent part of his postgame comments openly campaigning for why his team deserves a bowl bid.
"We are 8-3 right now and have one game to go ... I think we are a very attractive team to a lot of bowls out there because of the way we play defense and the way we play offense," he said. "We've got some guys (that are nationally ranked in some statistical categories). I think we are an attractive team, not only record wise but with our individual players and what we are doing offensively and defensively.
"Who wouldn't want to see us play in their hometown? I think we would bring people to a bowl. To me, this team deserves to play in a bowl game. If it ended right now, I'd be really mad and upset if we weren't in a bowl."