This Friday, the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (3-1, 1-0) will kick off a tough stretch of games as they travel west to BYU to take on the Cougars (1-2). The Blue Raiders will be looking for the upset in this, the first meeting between the two teams. MT is currently riding a two-game winning streak while BYU is coming off of a tough home loss to rival Utah. Kickoff is set for 8:00 p.m. CT and the game will air on ESPNU. This will be the first ever meeting between these two programs.
Last week, MT found itself in a dogfight with Florida Atlantic. In a back and forth contest, neither team could separate themselves from the other due to untimely turnovers and the sheer will to win that each team possessed.
The Blue Raiders had the Owls against the ropes late, leading 35-28, but FAU fought through the adversity and scored with nine seconds remaining to force overtime. MT scored on their first possession, forcing FAU's hand to make something happen. For the second straight week, the defense stepped up and shut the door when it mattered most, intercepting the Owls on fourth and goal to secure the 42-35 victory.
As for the Cougars, they fought for bragging rights in the 95th installment of "The Holy War" between arguably the top two teams in the state of Utah when they went up against the Utah Utes this past Saturday. The Utes jumped out to an early lead and extended it to 13-0 by halftime.
BYU came alive in the second half as they mounted a valiant comeback, but ultimately it was the Utes who prevailed after BYU failed to convert a pair of fourth down attempts, taking the game 20-13. BYU QB Taysom Hill threw for a career-high 260 yards while running for another 99 yards in the losing effort.
The Key to the Game for the Blue Raider offense will be to somehow, someway, get the passing game going. The run game for MT has been on point in just about every game, but the opposing defense will soon start loading the box if the Blue Raiders continue to be inept in the passing game.
MT is averaging 196 rushing yards per game, but just 205 yards passing and is coming off a game where the offense accumulated just 150 yards through the air. Some of that can be attributed to taking what the defense gives you, but at this point, it is fair to say the Blue Raider passing game has hit a rut.
MT will need QB Logan Kilgore to make smarter decisions when throwing the ball as he is on pace for 15 interceptions this year, which would be nine more than he had all of last year. Given the altitude changes MT will encounter, the ball will likely fly a little differently for Kilgore, so adjusting to that and moving the chains will be the priority.
As for the defense, the Key to the Game will focus on stopping the run as MT goes up against one of the best rushing attacks in the nation. The Cougars are currently ranked 8th in the nation in rushing yards per game, averaging an absurd 306 per contest. For their part MT has only allowed an average of 153 rushing yards per game, so they have had success in this area.
The "bend but don't break" style of defense that fans have become accustomed to seeing from this unit will have to hold true to form and the Blue Raider defense will have to play one of their best games of the season to keep them in this one. MT has had a lot of success in the turnover department so far this season, and that trend will need to continue in this game as well.
WR Tavarres Jefferson - Tavarres Jefferson has caught 22 passes for 279 yards so far this season, putting him just a little over 100 yards away from topping his career-high of 398 yards in a season. The RS senior has now caught a pass in 17 straight games and looks to be Kilgore's favorite target on third down scenarios as well as crunch time situations. Keep an eye on Jefferson as I expect him to have a big night.
QB Taysom Hill - Taysom Hill is one of the most dynamic players for the Cougars and his stat-line proves that. Although the sophomore signal caller has completed just 40-of-114 passes, the completions he has connected on have resulted in 564 yards one TD. While his arm is a work in progress, Hill's legs are what makes him dangerous as he has ran for 400 yards and four TDs, averaging 8.3 yards per carry. Hill will be the one you should keep an eye on all game.
Looking at these two teams, I only see this game shaking out one way, and that is with the Cougars handling the Blue Raiders, and with some ease. The BYU defense is pretty stout, and I just do not think the passing game is up for the challenge right now. Let's not forget that BYU will be playing with some anger issues following their loss to Utah.
I expect that MT will continue to struggle with their aerial attack, and I just do not think the Blue Raider defense is up to the task of stopping the Cougar's high-powered running attack. Add it all up, and MT will be forced to play from behind, which is going to force Kilgore's hand, which does not bode well for MT right now.
Look for BYU to put points on the board early and often thanks to their dual-threat QB, which will give the Blue Raider defense fits all game. Just when the Blue Raiders think they have BYU figured out, look for Hill to go over the top to WR Cody Hoffman, who is quickly approaching legendary status for BYU receivers.