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November 12, 2008Middle Tennessee has had more than a year to have to hold onto the bad taste in the mouth left from last season's 20-17 home loss to Western Kentucky.
This week's game in Bowling Green will provide the Blue Raiders a chance to avenge that defeat while more importantly taking another step toward bowl eligibility.
This week's Dime Package looks back at that game, ahead to this one, and examines other trends relevant to the Hilltoppers and Blue Raiders.
1) REFLECTING ON LAST YEAR- Few games rank higher in the frustration category for the Blue Raiders than last year's 20-17 home loss to Western Kentucky. It was a night when everything went wrong for MT, even when things went right. The Blue Raiders had a first quarter touchdown run called back by penalty. They won the turnover battle 3-0 yet still lost the game. A terrific opening drive that took nearly 10 minutes off the clock yielded zero points as Matt King missed a 39-yard field goal. By the time the game ended when King missed a game tying attempt from 34 yards, the Floyd Stadium crowd felt like it had been collectively punched in the gut. MT quarterback Dwight Dasher played admirably in his first start. The true freshman was injected into the starting lineup just days before the game when it became clear Joe Craddock would not be able to play after being injured at LSU. Dasher threw for 169 yards and ran for another 53, but the Blue Raider offense overall managed just 288 yards and converted just 2-of-12 third downs.
2) WELL BALANCED RUNNING- It would be hard to find a more balanced running team than Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers have five players that have at least 200 yards rushing, but not a single player has topped the 350 yard mark. Tyrell Hayden leads the team with 347 yards on the ground. Part of the reason WKU has such a balanced set of rushing statistics is because of injury problems. Among the Hilltoppers' most frequent ball carriers, redshirt freshman running back Bobby Rainey leads the team in yards per carry with 6.2, but he is not expected to be available Saturday after undergoing recent knee surgery. Hayden had a big game in Murfreesboro last year when he ran for a career-high 144 yards and one touchdown. As a team, WKU is averaging more than 160 yards per game rushing.
3) GOING FOR 100- Middle Tennessee is still looking for its first individual 100-yard rushing game of the season. The Western Kentucky defense presents maybe the best chance for a Blue Raider to achieve that so far this season. The Hilltoppers have allowed an opposing rusher to reach at least 100 yards in four straight games, including all three games they have played against Sun Belt opponents. Even in games when they didn't allow a single individual to reach 100 yards rushing, the Toppers allowed Alabama, Kentucky, and Virginia Tech nearly 650 combined rushing yards.
4) CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR- Middle Tennessee will be the fouth straight Sun Belt opponent Western Kentucky has faced. So far, the Hilltoppers have been snakebitten against their future league foes. They lost 24-20 at Florida Atlantic in a game they led by 10 in the first half and dropped a 17-7 game at Troy last week when they simply couldn't buy a third down conversion (4-for-17) against the Trojans. Most amazingly, WKU fell 51-40 at home to previously winless North Texas two weeks ago when it failed to score at the goal line at the end of the game, ultimately throwing an interception on the final play that Tobe Nwigwe returned 97 yards for a touchdown.
5) MINING THE MID-STATE- Western Kentucky likes to work the Middle Tennessee area to help fill its roster in recruiting. The Hilltoppers have nine players on their current roster that are native to the Mid-State area, including quarterback David Wolke.
6) WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES- In last year's 20-17 loss to Western Kentucky, the Blue Raider kicking game suffered much of the blame. Two missed field goals, including the final kick that could have forced overtime, are in many ways the enduring images from that game. Rick Stockstill can feel confident his team won't suffer the same fate this year. Freshman kicker Alan Gendreau rode out a brief rough stretch but has been on fire in recent games. Gendreau nailed his seventh straight field goal against ULM, a flawless 44-yarder that split the uprights. Gendreau's improvement is a big reason why Middle Tennessee has been much improved in the red zone in recent weeks. Having confidence in him to make kicks also frees up offensive coordinator G.A. Mangus to make more aggressive play calls when the Blue Raiders get in scoring territory.
7) NORTHERN EXPOSURE- With temperatures expected to struggle to reach 50 degrees in Bowling Green Saturday, this game is very likely to be the coldest the Blue Raiders have ever played in the Stockstill era. The most comparable game in the last two seasons came on this very weekend in 2006, when MT romped Arkansas State 38-10 in Jonesboro. The game time temperature that day registered a cool 51 degrees but under clear skies. There is a possibility some of this Saturday's game could be played under wet conditions.
8) RIVALRY TALK- Much has been made this week about Stockstill's comments regarding his feelings about treating the Western Kentucky game as a rivalry. Stockstill never intended to minimize the game at all, rather emphasizing that he wants his team to treat every game with the exact same level of through the roof intensity. He understands the fan base will get more excited over certain opponents though, and Western Kentucky is certainly one of those. If the Hilltoppers weren't a rival for the fans before, they certainly are now after winning last year in Murfreesboro. And even though former WKU quarterback K.J. Black is no longer on the team, Blue Raider fans still remember Black saying the Hilltoppers had "made a statement" against their "new rival" in the 20-17 game last year. Rivalry or not, count on the Blue Raiders to play with a chip on their shoulder after dropping last year's heartbreaker. Count on the fans to share that same sentiment in the final non-conference matchup between these teams until WKU officially joins the Sun Belt next year.
9) FRESHMEN RECEIVERS GET GROOVE BACK- Middle Tennessee wideouts Malcolm Beyah and Sancho McDonald started the year like gangbusters. Beyah was dominant in the first half of the year while McDonald showed flashes of natural talent that were stunning for a player that was completely new to the position after being recruited as a quarterback. Both players dipped some in production in recent weeks before last week's 24-21 over ULM. They each had significant plays in the win over the Warhawks. McDonald caught two passes for 46 yards and had one carry for 19 yards. One of his two catches was the final key third down conversion that helped the offense milk nearly all the time off the clock in the fourth quarter. Beyah caught just two passes for 22 yards total, but his long gain of 14 yards was spectacular. Beyah broke tackles and showed his combination of speed, power, and agility to turn a short pass into a lengthy gain.
10) COMBINED FIREPOWER- If you combined Craddock and Dwight Dasher at their best, you'd have one terrific quarterback. They each played very well in their opportunities last week. Combine their two sets of statistics and you get 16 completions in 26 attempts, 278 passing yards and two touchdowns. They also combined to rush for 13 yards and neither threw an interception. Both commanded first quarter drives that ended with touchdown passes. Each of Dasher's three completions was a thing of beauty. He completed a deep out on the right sideline to Patrick Honeycutt, a fade to the corner of the end zone to Honeycutt for a touchdown, and a dart of a throw on a skinny post to McDonald at the start of the second quarter.