It’s hard to believe that there are only two weekends remaining in the 2018 college football regular season, but that is exactly where we’re at. After a humbling loss in Knoxville, Kentucky will be returning to Kroger Field to send off an historic senior class on Saturday afternoon.
Standing in their way will be a Middle Tennessee squad who is 7-3 and will be playing for a division title in the C-USA against UAB next week. The Blue Raiders employ an Air Raid offense in tandem with an undersized and aggressive defense. Under Rick Stockstill, MT has beaten five Power Five teams. They will not be intimidated.
Nuts and Bolts
After spending 14 seasons on the staff at Clemson and two years working for both Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier at South Carolina, Rick Stockstill finally made the move to become a head coach. He came to Murfreesboro in 2006 and has been roaming the sidelines ever since.
Now in his 13th season, he owns an 86-75 record with seven bowl appearance and one conference title. He has the Blue Raiders in position to add another conference championship to their trophy case this December.
In recent years, Rick Stockstill made outstanding additions to his staff by bringing in Tony Franklin and Scott Shafer. Franklin, a former UK assistant Hal Mumme with a checkered past, is considered one of the masters of the Air Raid offense. After Sonny Dykes was fired at California he was looking for a job and the offense at MT have been good since he arrived.
Scott Shafer was the defensive coordinator at Michigan and later the head coach at Syracuse. He was fired after three seasons and then took a year off before coming to Murfreesboro. His defenses are known to be aggressive.
With these two assistants, Rick Stockstill has surrounded himself with experienced coaches who have had success at the highest levels of college football. Due to some circumstances, each found themselves in a position to needing to work at a Group of Five program and it has paid dividends to Middle Tennessee. It’s no surprise to see them competing for a conference crown.
Like many of the programs you see in the C-USA and Sun Belt, MT was in the FCS not so long ago. The Blue Raiders made the jump in 2000 and they’ve been very successful since. Originally a member of the Sun Belt conference, Middle won two conference titles before realignment. They moved to the C-USA in 2013 and have yet to post a losing mark in league play since the conference switch. They have a winning culture.
This will be the third time these two programs have met with Kentucky holding a 2-0 series lead. Rick Stockstill brought his Blue Raiders to Lexington in 2008 and nearly came away with an upset. On the last play of the game, MT threw a hail mary and UK would need a tackle from Robbie McAtee at the one-yard line to secure the Kentucky victory.
Out in the desert, Kentucky is currently a 16-point favorite with a total of 46.5. That’s a projected final score of somewhere around 31-15. In their last 10 games as a favorite, Kentucky is 0-10 against the spread. On the year, Kentucky is 4-6 against the spread while Middle Tennessee is 6-4 against the number.
In any Air Raid scheme, you need a quarterback that can deliver the ball quickly with accuracy and precision. Middle Tennessee has exactly that with Brent Stockstill.
The son of the head coach, Brent Stockstill has been starting at quarterback for the Blue Raiders since his redshirt freshman season and owns every program passing record.
As a freshman and sophomore, the coach’s son put up more yards and points but this year the Blue Raiders have gone to a more conservative approach. MT doesn’t have as many explosive playmakers surrounding the quarterback so they’ve put more on his plate from a game control standpoint. It’s paying off with him having a career high completion rate of 68.8% and a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 21/5. He’s a very good quarterback and will be one of the best UK has seen this season.
On the perimeter is where you’ll find Middle’s best two playmakers in Ty Lee and Patrick Smith. The two undersized receivers have more quickness than breakaway speed and that’s needed in this horizontal passing attack. Under Tony Franklin, the Blue Raiders want to get you going east/west before they attack you north/south. Lee and Smith are great at this.
The duo each have a catch rate at or above 70% and have combined for 10 receiving touchdowns. Whenever the offense is in a bind they look to the two star receivers and get the ball to them in the lot of ways. If you can stop the run early they will use the quick passing game to these two as an extension of the run game.
Middle suffered a big loss when running back Brad Anderson was lost for the season. The sophomore was a great weapon as a third down back and without him their running back rotation has included more power. In the last few games, redshirt freshman Chaton Mobley has emerged as the team’s top running back option.
The 235-pound back rumbled for 198 yards in a win over WKU two weeks ago and now leads the team in rushing. He won’t be the only back UK sees on Saturday. Much like Tennessee last week, MT runs a platoon and they’ll ride the hot hand. Terelle West has replaced Brad Anderson as the third down back and Tavares Thomas is another power back. This offense has a nice blend of options in the backfield.
Up front is the weak link of the unit. However, this scheme was made to allow you to win without dominant offensive line play. Most of the time, Brent Stockstill gets the ball out quick but if you can get the Blue Raiders in obvious passing situations pressure can really get to the experienced quarterback. In the run game, there’s a reason MTSU is only averaging 3.75 yards per carry. This group struggles to move people at the point of attack.
When you see an Air Raid offense with a popular offensive coordinator and a talented senior quarterback you would assume scoring points and beating teams in shootouts would be this squad’s strength. However, Middle Tennessee bucks that trend.
The best unit on Rick Stockstill’s squad is on the defensive side of the football and coordinator Scott Shafer has done an excellent job with this group. The Blue Raiders have one of the best defenses in the Group of Five and they play an attacking style.
In this 4-3 scheme, Middle Tennessee prefers to play downhill and create havoc. Most of this disruption is caused by an outstanding trio of linebackers. Khalil Brooks, Darius Harris, and DQ Thomas have combined to collect 28 tackles for loss, eight sacks, and 40 run stuffs (run stops at or behind the line of scrimmage). These are great numbers and they will be a terror for UK’s offensive line to deal with.
Both Khalil Brooks and DQ Thomas (each under 215 pounds) are undersized for their spots. However, middle linebacker Darius Harris looks like a pro prospect at 6-foot-2, 238 pounds and he plays like it.
The senior from Mississippi is second on the team in tackles and is one of the best run stuffing inside linebackers UK has seen all season. The Wildcats interior run game has struggled and getting right against Darius Harris will not be an easy task.
The linebackers get all of the attention, but MT has two nice options at defensive end. Jahmal Jones and Trae Philpots have combined to contribute 10.5 tackles for loss and they’re both threats to rush the passer. Each is under 260 pounds but they both play with a motor.
In the secondary is where you’ll find Middle Tennessee’s leading tackler. Sophomore safety Reed Blankenship has recorded 80 tackles in 10 games this season and cleans up a lot of stuff once it gets past the linebackers. Joining Blankenship is senior Jovante Moffatt who is excellent at free safety. In this attacking scheme, it is important to have safeties that can limit big plays when the offense gets past the first two levels. Middle Tennessee has that with Blankenship and Moffatt.
If you’re looking for a weakness of this group it is at defensive tackle and corner. The Blue Raiders have already lost starting corner Cordell Hudson for the season and are extremely thin and small at that spot. Inside, Malik Manciel gives up a lot of weight at only 254 pounds playing a defensive tackle spot. Rosheem Collins gives Middle more size, but it’s going to be quite a challenge for them going against UK’s big interior line.
The Blue Raiders are currently plus-6 in turnover margin and a big reason for that is the defense. Middle Tennessee has forced 19 takeaways on the season with four defensive touchdowns. Expect man blitzes and some unnecessary risks to be taken. Big plays will be there for UK if they can hold onto blocks, beat man coverage, and break tackles in space.
Special Teams Breakdown
Kentucky will be facing a very strong punter on Saturday, but this time it won’t be because of his powerful leg. Matt Bonadies averages less than 43 yards per attempt, but where he hurts you is with is accuracy. The senior forces a lot of fair catches and has nearly half of his punts downed inside the 20. However, Middle Tennessee has been susceptible to big returns when he is off his game.
At kicker, MT has had their struggles with Crews Holt only going 9 of 14 on the season with four missed PATs. On kickoffs, Middle rolls with Matt Bonadies and he’s nowhere near as efficient as he his on punts. Big return opportunities will be there for Lynn Bowden.
Middle Tennessee seems to have a fair catch return philosophy in the kicking game. They nearly go with it on each opportunity, but when they call for a return they’re usually pretty successful. Ty Lee is dynamic as a return man and with the struggles UK’s punt coverage team has had expect Middle to have something prepared to expose that.
Keys to the Victory
- There’s been a lot of talk about the Wildcats scoring less than 20 points in every game since September, but the real cause for concern has been the slow starts. UK hasn’t had an opening drive touchdown since the Murray State win and they haven’t held a double-digit lead since the South Carolina victory. On Saturday, UK must start fast to gain some confidence. You won’t have to look long to find Midde Tennessee’s weaknesses. Kentucky’s offense, just to get some confidence, needs to expose them early.
- A week after allowing Georgia to roll up over 300 yards on the ground, Kentucky allowed the worst rushing offense in the SEC to collect 215 yards last week. Most of the talk has been about the offense’s ineffectiveness, but this defense has taken a step backwards the last two weeks. Against a bad rushing offense, Kentucky must make Middle Tennessee one-dimensional. Do that and force some passing downs to allow Josh Allen to break the program sack record on Senior Day.
- Senior Day is always a great celebration, but usually they can be followed by sluggish starts. After consecutive losses and what appear to be some legit confidence issues, UK cannot afford another slow start. Eddie Gran talked about urgency this week and that is what they must show once the game kicks off at noon.
The Blue Raiders have the most interesting mascot in the world. Agree or disagree?