Following a bye week, the Blue Raiders enter a four game sprint to the finish starting with Saturday's Homecoming matchup against Louisiana-Monroe.
Can Middle Tennessee reverse its recent misfortune and close the year on a hot streak?
We tackle that topic and others in this week's Dime Package.
1) REVIEWING LAST YEAR'S CLASSIC- Middle Tennessee and Louisiana-Monroe played arguably the most exciting game of the 2007 season in the Sun Belt. The Blue Raiders got a kickoff return for a touchdown from senior Bradley Robinson in the final minute to post a 43-40 road win and stay in the hunt for the league championship at the time. The game featured way more than just that one play though. It featured 11 lead changes, 1,123 yards of offense, six passing touchdowns, 53 first downs, and a combined average of nearly eight yards per play. Middle Tennessee had two receivers top 100 yards while ULM had two rushers top 100 yards. Of 27 total possessions in the game 13 ended in some kind of offensive score, another four resulted in a turnover, and one resulted in a safety.
2) FINAL STRETCH WILL TELL THE TALE- Rick Stockstill has said for the last two weeks that his team is better than its 2-6 record indicates. Over the final four games, the Blue Raiders should have a chance to prove their coach right. Two of the final four are at home and the combined record of the next three opponents is 6-21 prior to facing conference leader Louisiana-Lafayette in the season finale. Does that guarantee a winning streak? Not a chance, but following a brutal stretch of five road games in the last six contests and a bye week, the opportunity is certainly there for the Blue Raiders to finish on a high note. If they do, this season will be remembered as a successful one, particularly with the win over Maryland highlighting the memories of 2008.
3) WILL RUNNING GAME FINALLY GET GOING?-Middle Tennessee's struggles to run the ball this season have been well documented, but there is definite credibility to the argument that the Blue Raiders have struggled in large part because of the long line of tough run defenses they have encountered. The final four games of the season should offer a better measuring stick for the actual state of MT's rush offense. Louisiana-Monroe, Western Kentucky, North Texas, and Louisiana-Lafayette allow a combined average of more than 200 yards rushing per game. From that group, only Western Kentucky is currently allowing less than 200 rushing yards per game. Can the Blue Raiders take advantage? If they can, the offense could be set to explode with a more balanced attack.
4) INSIDE THE ULM NUMBERS- In Louisiana-Monroe's just concluded three game homestand in which the Warhawks won two games and should have won all, ULM featured its best offensive balance of the year. In a win over North Texas, ULM ran for 244 yards and passed for 217. In a tough loss to Florida Atlantic, the Warhawks racked up 155 yards rushing and 216 through the air. Last week in an upset over Troy, ULM put up 161 rushing yards and 169 passing. With a slippery dual threat quarterback in Kinsmon Lancaster, ULM's playbook features a lot of ways for the offense to excel by ground or by air. Almost without exception, when the Warhawks have lost they have been one dimensional offensively. Auburn, Arkansas, Tulane, and Arkansas State each held ULM to well less than 100 yards rushing.
5) ATTENDANCE THOUGHTS- Homecoming usually means a good turnout at Floyd Stadium and this year should be no different. With just two home games remaining and the Blue Raiders having drawn more than 20,000 fans to each of their first three home games, Middle Tennessee is set to celebrate its most consistent attendance of the 1-A/FBS era. It seems that gone are the days of having large season opening crowds only to play the final couple of home games in front of a near empty stadium. Credit is due in several areas. Give some to Chris Massaro for the initiatives he has put in place to improve the gameday environment. Give some to the marketing department which puts in the hours on the ground. Give a lot to the players and coaches for becoming an active part of the university community. Give a lot to the fans for buying in.
6) COMPARING GOODIN WITH DAWSON- Louisiana-Monroe has had a dynamic force at running back over the last several seasons. For most of those years, it was standout back Calvin Dawson carrying the offense. With Dawson gone, the tailback in the spotlight now is sophomore Frank Goodin. Goodin's rushing numbers this year don't measure up to what Dawson did on the ground last year. Dawson averaged five yards per carry and racked up 12 rushing touchdowns. Goodin won't approach those numbers without a huge finish to the season, but he does trump Dawson as a pass catcher out of the backfield. He has already amassed almost as many receiving yards this year as Dawson did all of last year and he's averaged nearly three more yards per catch on his catches. Two of Goodin's five touchdowns this year have come in the passing game. As Rick Stockstill said this week, Goodin is an every down back.
7) RECENT NOVEMBERS- November hasn't been a particularly good month for the Blue Raiders in recent seasons. Middle Tennessee is 10-12 in November games dating back to 2002 and the Blue Raiders haven't posted a winning record in November since going 2-1 in 2001. As outlined earlier, the remaining schedule offers the program the best chance to close strong its had in several years. A successful finish would springboard the program into the major recruiting season as well as help erase some of the sting of painful November defeats the last two seasons, when the Blue Raiders had chances to win an outright league championship before a late loss.
8) WANTED: RED ZONE TOUCHDOWNS- MT's offensive performance in the red zone in recent games has been a big improvement over what it was earlier in the season, but the Blue Raiders need to capitalize with more touchdowns if they want to catch fire offensively. Alan Gendreau's improvement has been a significant boost to the offense's efficiency, but Stockstill would rather see Gendreau kicking extra points than field goals. For the season, the Blue Raiders have converted just 40 percent of their red zone trips into touchdowns. Blue Raider opponents are scoring touchdowns on 55 percent of red zone trips. The single biggest factor lies in MT's short yardage running game struggles. If the Blue Raiders reverse that trend in this stretch drive, their red zone touchdown percentage should improve.
9) HOT LINEBACKERS- MT linebackers Danny Carmichael and Ivon Hickmon are each enjoying fine seasons and the duo was very impressive in the recently completed three game road trip. The two combined for 48 tackles, six of them for loss, and Hickmon recorded a key interception at Louisville. Hickmon leads the team in tackles for loss and is tied for the team lead in interceptions and sacks. Carmichael is the overall tackling leader, is tied for first in forced fumbles, ranks second in tackles for loss, and is tied with Hickmon and others for the team lead in sacks.
10) SUN BELT RACE HEADS FOR HOME-While the game at Floyd Stadium this weekend doesn't have championship implications, the Sun Belt title race appears headed for an exciting finish. Louisiana-Lafayette, Troy, and Arkansas State are locked in a three team race with the Ragin Cajuns and Trojans each controlling their own destiny. Arkansas State still has a road game at Troy but the Red Wolves need somebody else to knock off UL-Lafayette after dropping a 28-23 game in Lafayette in October. The two key games to watch come on November 22nd (ULL at Troy) and December 6th (ASU at Troy). Middle Tennessee could have a chance to play spoiler when the Blue Raiders hit the road on December 3rd for the season finale at UL-Lafayette.