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FIU renews its rivalry with Middle Tennessee in Murfreesboro, Tenn. on Saturday at 4 p.m. You can join me for the call of the game on the FIU Sports Radio Network beginning at 3:55 p.m. CLICK HERE to access the broadcast.
The Panthers and Raiders (5-4, 3-2 C-USA) will be meeting for the ninth time, with the first eight games being Sun Belt Conference contests and this being their first Conference USA matchup against each other. Middle Tennessee leads the series 5-3 with several of the games coming down to the final minute such as last year’s tilt where Willis Wright was tackled one foot short of the goal line on the final play of a 34-30 Raiders win at FIU Stadium.
Long-time Middle Tennessee beat writer Adam Sparks of the Daily News Journal joins us here to answer 5 Questions on Middle Tennessee.
1. Does the Middle Tennessee offense go as Jordan Parker and Reggie Whatley go? Or does the Panthers defense have to key in on somebody else on the Blue Raiders offense?
AS: Well, it depends on who is healthy. Jordan Parker was out last week with an injury, and his status is up in the air for this game. Even if he plays, he might be limited. Reggie Whatley was also injured last week, but he rushed for a career-high 155 yards and appeared well enough to play this week. But the answer to the broader question is yes, the offense goes where the running game is. That production may come from Parker or Whatley or even sophomore Jeremiah Bryson or true freshman Shane Tucker. MTSU has to run the ball for its offense to go. The passing game just hasn't shown it can thrive independently of the run game this season.
2. The Raiders have scored more than 42 points in three games this season and 20 or less points in five games, what do you think are the reasons for the scoring inconsistency?
AS: Good question. No one here has figured out the inconsistency either. MTSU has won the turnover margin and lost convincingly. It put up 51 points against the top defense in C-USA at the time (Marshall) and then went scoreless for more than a half against the worst in total defense in C-USA at the time (UAB). Some of it is just MTSU not finishing drives on offense and not getting off the field on third down on defense, but that's still oversimplification. I will be asking this same question this week, though. I figure MTSU's answer will be that instability on the offensive line and at running back due to injuries have something to do with it. That's probably a factor, but there has to be more.
3. What is the strength of the Raiders defense? Looking at the numbers it seems like opponents have been able to run on Middle, is that how the Panthers should attack the Raiders D?
AS: The answer to the last one is yes. UAB ran the ball for its first 26 offensive plays. MTSU knew they were running. UAB knew they were running. Everybody in Legion Field knew they were running. But it was still difficult to stop. So, yes, run the ball. That's how you compete with MTSU. That being said, MTSU's strengths have been in its athleticism -- speed in pursuing the ball and in forcing turnovers. MTSU has thrived in takeaways all season (INTs and fumbles) and their speed has limited big plays at times. But in many places that speed must compensate for a lack of size, which is why power running attacks have caused problems.
4. Should the Raiders win Saturday, they become bowl-eligible. What were the expectations of Middle Tennessee before the season?
AS: Well, publicly they said they wanted to compete for the C-USA championship and go to a bowl game. That's basically the same every year. Privately, I think a winning record and bowl berth in year one in C-USA was a reasonable expectation. I thought they would go about 7-5 and maybe 8-4 at best. Judging from the weak schedule at the end of this year, both of those appear likely. MTSU will be favored in its three remaining games. Even if it drops one, that's still 7-5.
5. How do you see Saturday's game playing out?
AS: This team is completely unpredictable. I think the offense will be better than it was early last week. I think the defense will force turnovers, which it has every game. I think the team is hungry for a bowl bid, so it will play with energy and emotion. FIU will try to run the ball and probably have some success there. I think MTSU will also run the ball with some success, regardless of which guy carries the ball. I’m going with Middle on this one to become bowl-eligible with its sixth win of the season.
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