Six pack: Defense is making plays

Middle Tennessee's challenge heading into this week's game at North Texas is to be able to handle success.
The Blue Raiders are rightfully feeling good about themselves after improving to 2-1 on the season with a thrilling 32-31 win at Maryland, but games take on even more importance now as the schedule shifts to conference action in Denton. breaks down six game related items in the Tuesday Six Pack.
RAIDERS MAKING PLAYS BEHIND THE LINE: Middle Tennessee's defense has been impressive in the opening weeks of the season and has been particularly adept at making big plays behind the line of scrimmage. Through three games, the defense has racked up eight takeaways and 25 tackles for loss. Compare those numbers to the first three games of the 2008 season, when the defense accumulated eight takeaways and had just 14 tackles for loss. The charge has been led by defensive ends Chris McCoy and Jamari Lattimore, who have combined for five sacks and 11 TFLs.
THE DODGE FACTOR: It's certainly not fair to North Texas backup quarterback Nathan Tune to compare his peformance in his start at national title contender Alabama with Mean Green starting signal caller Riley Dodge's output in the season's first two games against Ball State and Ohio. However, there is no denying that the North Texas offense becomes more dangerous with Dodge on the field. The freshman quarterback is expected to return this week after missing the Alabama game with an injury to his non-throwing shoulder. In the two games Dodge has played, North Texas has averaged nearly 410 yards of total offense. Against Alabama's fierce defense without Dodge, the Mean Green only managed 187 yards.
ACCURATE GENDREAU: MT sophomore kicker Alan Gendreau has made his first three field goal attempts of the season. He has connected on one field goal against each of Clemson, Memphis, and Maryland, including the game winner against the Terrapins on Saturday. You have to go back to 2004 to find the last time a Blue Raider kicker made his first three field goal attempts of the season. That year, Colby Smith made his first three attempts in the first two games of the season against Akron and Florida Atlantic.
SERIES HAS SHIFTED: For the first five years of the Sun Belt's existence in college football, North Texas was an annual thorn in MT's side. However, since Rick Stockstill arrived in 2006 the Blue Raiders have dominated the series, winning all three games by an average score of 45-14. In those three games, MT's offense has averaged almost 400 yards per game, while North Texas has managed a meager 283. In the first five meetings between the two teams this decade, North Texas went 5-0 but the Mean Green's average margin of victory during that stretch was less than a touchdown.
COULD SPECIAL TEAMS MAKE THE DIFFERENCE?: Maybe it's coincidence and maybe it's not, but MT has had a knack for blocking kicks against North Texas. The Blue Raiders have blocked 26 kicks since joining the FBS (1-A) level of college football, and six of those 26 have come against the Mean Green, including one in each of the last two games. The Blue Raiders have already shown an ability to do the same this year as they blocked a field goal try last week against Maryland.
RED ZONE EFFECTIVENESS: MT struggled in the red zone early in the 2008 season, but the Blue Raiders have made a dramatic turnaround in that category in the first three games of this season. Against Clemson, Memphis, and Maryland, MT has capitalized on 10 of 12 trips inside the opponent's 20 yard line, accounting for 57 total points on the strength of seven touchdowns. MT has been a perfect 9 of 9 in the red zone in the last two games, with six of the nine scores being touchdowns. Opponents have not been as successful against MT so far in the red zone. Opponents have penetrated the 20 yard line only seven times and have scored on five of those trips, but two of those five were just field goals.