Thursday night the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (5-3, 3-1) travel north to take on the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (6-2, 3-1) in what might be the biggest Sun Belt rivalry game. The Blue Raiders will be looking to continue their momentum and win their third straight SBC game. The stakes are simple - the winner will remain in the race for the conference championship, while the loser will likely be eliminated from contention.
Last week, Middle Tennessee hosted the North Texas Mean Green, but by games end the Mean Green were full of black and blue bruises. The Blue Raiders came out swinging - dominating on both sides of the ball and scoring 31 unanswered points before UNT was able to find momentum on offense and score their first points. Unfortunately for the Mean Green, it was too little too late as Middle Tennessee and QB Logan Kilgore were too much for their defense. Kilgore completed 20 of 30 passes for 349 yards three TDs, while also running for 45 yards and a score. For his efforts, Kilgore was named the Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Week. More importantly, the Blue Raiders would ride on for the 38-21 victory.
As for the Hilltoppers, they traveled to South Beach to take on the fledgling Florida International Golden Panthers, where they showed just how dominate their defense can be. WKU would take the lead late in the opening quarter and hold that lead for the rest of the game using their ball-hawking defense. WKU forced four turnovers during the game and only allowed 86 rushing yards on 35 carries in route to the 14-6 win.
Last year, the Blue Raiders hosted WKU in their annual Black Out game, with MT looking to turn their season around after earning their first victory of the season against FAU. The game would prove to be one of the most exciting games of the season with both teams trading the lead back and forth throughout the game. The game would go into overtime after a late fourth quarter TD connection from Kilgore to WR Anthony Amos. In the second OT, however, MT would have to settle for a field goal, giving the Hilltoppers a chance for the win. WKU would respond with a RB Bobby Rainey TD to win 36-33 in thrilling fashion - taking a moment to make sure they celebrated on MT's turf before heading back to Bowling Green.
The Blue Raiders offense will have their hands full Thursday night when they go up against possibly the best defense in the Sun Belt. Western Kentucky ranks 18th in the nation in yards allowed, only giving up 319 total yards per game - 211 yards passing (41st) and 107 yards rushing (17th). The Hilltopper defense also ranks 39th in scoring defense - allowing just 22 points per game - and 4th in sacks with three per game.
There are two big reasons for the success of WKU's defense this season. One would have to be junior LB Andrew Jackson, who leads the team in total TKL's with 65 while also accumulating 10 tackles for loss, two sacks and two forced fumbles. The other reason is DL Quanterus Smith, who leads the team in tackles for loss and sacks with 14.5 and 11.5, respectively. It will be interesting to see how MT plans to attack WKU with these two running around.
It has been shown that the Hilltoppers are extremely tough to run on. So to win this game, the Blue Raiders will have to find success in the passing game, which has been greatly improved this season. Middle Tennessee ranks 53rd in the nation in passing averaging - 244 yards per game. QB Logan Kilgore has shown dramatic improvement in his decision making this season, limiting his interceptions to just four on the season. Kilgore will have to continue this trend and get the ball to his playmakers Anthony Amos and Kyle Griswould if they want to come out on top Thursday night.
Offensively, Western Kentucky is not very flashy, utilizing more of a game-managing type of offense. The Hilltoppers average 396 total yards per game on the season, ranking them 67th in the nation - 81st in passing (211) and 41st in rushing (184). QB Kawaun Jakes is one reason the offense is able to manage the game so well, as he has completed almost 70% of his passes and only thrown five interceptions.
Going into the season, Western Kentucky fans were worried that the team might have a hard time replacing former workhorse Bobby Rainey, but the Hilltoppers have shown that their running game has not really fallen off. Junior RB Antonio Andrews has been able to fill that void as he has rushed for 917 yards and seven TDs on the season.
The focus for MT's defense will have to be on stopping the run as they still allow 186 rushing yards per game. This area has been one of the biggest weaknesses for the defense the last few years, and they will need to find a quick fix Thursday. Containing Andrews will go a long way in stopping the Hilltoppers from controlling the clock and controlling the momentum of the game.
The Blue Raiders will also need to stop Jakes from making easy passes to convert first downs. Jakes has shown great improvement since last season, while Middle Tennessee has shown that they can be thrown on. If Middle Tennessee can get some pressure and force the senior leader into making some mistakes, the Blue Raiders will have a good chance at beating rival Western Kentucky.
This game will once again prove to be a thriller just like the past few games of this series as both teams will trade the lead back and forth with the game going right down to the wire.
Look for Logan Kilgore to have a decent game as he throws for over 250 yards and two TDs, but do not be surprised to see the WKU pressure force some bad throws, resulting in two INTs. The running game will have one of its worst games as they struggle against the Hilltoppers talented front seven.
As for WKU's offense, they will continue to do what they have done all season - getting the job done. Look for Antonio Andrews to rush for around 150 yards and two TDs as MT has a hard time stopping the running game. As hard as it is to say it, this game looks to favor the Hilltoppers, thus ending the Blue Raiders chances of winning an outright Sun Belt Championship.