Third of the way home: Progress report

Middle Tennessee is a third of the way through its 2009 schedule and with the Blue Raiders having an extra couple of days to get ready for Troy, it's a good time to analyze the progress of the team.
What areas have improved? What areas need some fine tuning? We break down three of each.
DWIGHT DASHER'S PLAY- Junior quarterback Dwight Dasher was considered by many to be a question mark at the outset of fall camp, but he's gotten off to a great start and appears to have put his 2008 struggles behind him. He is MT's leading rusher in addition to his 1,028 passing yards and 119.65 passer rating. His 55.5 percent completion rate needs to come up a little but nitpicking his performances makes it easy to forget just how valuable he has been. Dasher's production has accounted for nearly 79 percent of MT's total offense and nearly 77 percent of MT's offensive touchdowns. To appreciate those numbers, compare them to Florida quarterback Tim Tebow's numbers from the 2008 season. The nation's premiere dual threat quarterback accounted for 55 percent of Florida's total yards last year and 56 percent of the Gators' offensive touchdowns. Dasher's performance looks overwhelming compared to Central Michigan's Dan LeFevour as well. So far this year, LeFevour has accounted for 63 percent of Central Michigan's total offense and 75 percent of the Chippewas' offensive touchdowns. None of this is to say that Dasher is better than Tebow or LeFevour, but that his contributions are arguably more valuable to his team. The biggest concern related to Dasher the rest of the way may not be his ability to perform, but rather the risk of overusing him.
PENALTIES- So far in 2009, the Blue Raiders have been more disciplined with penalties than they were last year. Last year's team ranked 56th nationally in penalties per game and 65th in penalty yardage per game. MT has improved those rankings this year to 25th and 15th, respectively. Not only are the Raiders committing fewer penalties this year, but they are also committing fewer big penalties. MT's average penalty this year has cost the Raiders 7.5 yards. Last year, the average MT penalty cost 8.9 yards.
RED ZONE PRODUCTION- MT's overall red zone offense has been better so far this season. But the Raiders aren't just scoring more points, they are also scoring more touchdowns. Through four games last year, MT scored just five touchdowns on 11 trips inside the red zone (45 percent). This year, the Raiders have cashed in on touchdowns nine times in 16 tries (56 percent). Overall, MT has scored in the red zone 14 times in 16 trips this year, compared to just seven scores in 11 trips in the first four games last year. With nine touchdowns and five field goals, MT is averaging almost five points per trip inside the red zone. Last year at this time, the Raiders were only averaging 3.7 points per red zone trip. MT has also been better at red zone defense, as the Raiders have allowed a lower percentage of total red zone scores and touchdowns compared to this point last season.
SPECIAL TEAMS- If it weren't for kicker Alan Gendreau being perfect so far this year on field goals, there wouldn't be much very positive to point to on special teams. MT ranks 113th nationally in kickoff coverage and is surrendering almost six more yards per kick return than the Blue Raiders did last year. MT is also worse in punt coverage, ranking 88th nationally so far this year compared to 77th in 2008, although net punting has improved slightly over last year. The Raiders aren't making much happen in their own return game either. MT ranks 116th nationally in punt returns and 104th in kick returns.
NEGATIVE PLAYS- Although MT's offense has been more successful overall this season, the Raiders could be even more productive if they cut down on the number of negative plays they have sustained. Opponents have recorded 10 sacks and 29 tackles for loss this season. While the tackles for loss numbers are so far identical to last year, the number of sacks taken has doubled through the first four games compared to 2008. MT only allowed 15 sacks all of last season and are so far on pace to allow 30 this season. Last year, MT had 478 yards of negative plays. This year, the Raiders are on pace to record 648 yards worth of negative plays, a difference that equates to about 15 yards per game.
3RD DOWN OFFENSE- MT has converted just 32.4 percent of its third downs so far this year, a mark that ranks the Raiders 97th nationally. Last year, the Raiders ended the season ranked 55th in third down offense and converted more than 40 percent of their third down opportunities. Through four games last year, MT had converted 36 percent on third down. The Raiders are likely to improve on the 32 percent number as the schedule shifts to conference play, but the offense needs to be able to cut down on its negative plays to avoid as many long yardage third down plays.