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Minnesota Football vs Middle Tennessee State - Week 3 Preview

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The Blue Raiders have faced two Power 5 opponents and beaten one of them. How will the Golden Gophers fare?

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Middle Tennessee Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Season Record: 1-1
Head Coach: Rick Stockstill (73-67, 12th year at MTSU)
2017 S&P+ Overall Ranking: 96th
2016 S&P+ Overall Ranking: 94th

Middle Tennessee State is coming to Minneapolis. The Blue Raiders will visit TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday for the first time since 2014, when Golden Gophers running back David Cobb led Minnesota to a 35-24 victory. Minnesota represents the third consecutive Power 5 opponent for Middle Tennessee State this season.

In Week 1, the Blue Raiders were smothered by the Vanderbilt Commodores in a 28-6 loss at home, failing to score a touchdown until the fourth quarter. But Middle Tennessee State rebounded in Week 2 on the road against Syracuse, scoring a 30-23 victory over the Orange.

Will Minnesota prevail as Vanderbilt did or suffer the same unfortunate fate as Syracuse? Let’s break things down and find out what makes the Blue Raiders tick.

Offense

Redshirt junior quarterback Brent Stockstill, son of head coach Rick Stockstill, is in his third year as starting quarterback for Middle Tennessee State. His career numbers are impressive (7,714 passing yards, 65 touchdowns, 19 interceptions, 64.7 completion percentage). The signal caller was smothered against Vanderbilt to the tune of 166 passing yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception, and 5 sacks — the Commodores ranked 40th in passing defense last season, according to S&P+ — but fared much better against Syracuse (22-for-36, 269 passing yards, 3 touchdowns, 1 interception). The Orange were only able to sack Stockstill once, so it will be critical for Minnesota to be able to pressure him and disrupt the passing game.

Stockstill’s top target is junior wide receiver Richie James, who has exceeded 100 receptions and 1,000 receiving yards in each of the last two seasons. Through two games, James has 28 receptions, 208 receiving yards, and 2 touchdowns. If the Gopher secondary can put the clamps on James, Stockstill will likely turn to the aforementioned Ty Lee (9 receptions, 83 receiving yards, 1 touchdown) or junior Patrick Smith (5 receptions, 64 receiving yards).

If you thought the Gophers’ running game was struggling, the Blue Raiders would like to have a chat. Their leading rusher is sophomore wide receiver Ty Lee (23 carries, 58 rushing yards, 1 touchdown). Lee assumed starting running back duties after a camp competition junior Maurice Gordon and senior Shane Tucker went nowhere. Compounded with the struggles of an offensive line that returned two starters from a year ago, the coaching staff has been forced to get creative in their rushing attack.

Through two games, the Blue Raiders are averaging 2.4 yards per carry. Considering the Gophers’ defensive front is allowing 65.5 rushing yards per game and an average of 2.7 yards per carry, Saturday does not bode well for Middle Tennessee State.

Verdict: I will be very surprised if Middle Tennessee State is able to run the ball against Minnesota. If their rushing woes continue, the Blue Raiders will need to be able to take advantage of the Gophers’ thin secondary, but cornerbacks Antonio Shenault and Kiondre Thomas have held up well through the first two weeks despite a few hiccups. With Antoine Winfield, Jr. at the nickel and Duke McGhee and Jacob Huff at the safety positions, Stockstill will have his hands full trying to find open space.

Defense

The Blue Raiders were woeful on defense last season. Ranking 118th in total defense according to S&P+, Middle Tennessee State’s defense allowed 198.7 rushing yards per game, 250.8 passing yards per game, and 35.8 points per game.

Their competition through the first two weeks has been questionable -- neither Vanderbilt nor Syracuse ranked in the Top 50 in offense last season according to S&P+ — but the Commodores’ junior quarterback Kyle Shurmur was able to throw for 296 passing yards and 3 touchdowns, with 1 sack and 1 interception. Alternatively, Syracuse’s junior quarterback Eric Dungey struggled mightily against the Orange in Week 2, as he was 26-for-32 with 180 passing yards, no touchdowns, and 1 interception.

Leading the Blue Raiders’ secondary are junior safety Jovante Moffatt (10 tackles) and JUCO transfer safety Wesley Bush (8 tackles). Moffatt is one of two returning starters in the defensive backfield, the other being senior cornerback Mike Minter (7 tackles). Opposite Minter is junior cornerback Darryl Randolph (9 tackles).

Middle Tennessee State’s strength on the defensive side of the ball might be at the linebacker position, where the Blue Raiders return all three starters from last season — senior D.J. Sanders (9 tackles and 1 sack) and juniors Chris Melton (10 tackles) and Darius Harris (8 tackles and 0.5 sacks). Sophomore Khalil Brooks might be the best of the bunch though, as he leads the rest of the team with 13 tackles and 1.5 sacks.

But the experience at linebacker is countered by the inexperience along the defensive line, with all four of last year’s starters gone. The interior defensive linemen haven’t made much noise through the first two weeks, but senior defensive end Jahmal Jones (7 tackles) and junior defensive end Walter Brady (8 tackles and 2 sacks) are ones to watch.

Thus far, the defensive front has held up well for Middle Tennessee State. The Blue Raiders are allowing an average of 98.5 rushing yards per game and 2.3 yards per carry on 84 rushing attempts. That’s a substantial improvement from how this unit was performing a season ago. Vanderbilt and Syracuse do not feature prolific rushing attacks, but Minnesota hasn’t exactly been running the ball with any consistency.

Verdict: This is an interesting matchup, especially now that Conor Rhoda has been named starting quarterback for the Gophers. If Minnesota is unable to open up the running game against a surprisingly stingy Blue Raider defensive front, can Rhoda put the offense on his shoulders (at least temporarily) and sling it against a secondary that looked outmatched against Vanderbilt but tough against Syracuse? We’ll find out.

Prediction: Minnesota 31, Middle Tennessee State 17. I’ve been thoroughly impressed with new defensive coordinator Robb Smith through the first two games of the season and I think the Gopher defense will hold up well against a Blue Raider offense that hasn’t been as prolific as previous Middle Tennessee State passing attacks. It’ll be a close game in the first half, but the Gophers will pull away as Rhoda opens up running lanes for Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks by forcing the Blue Raiders to respect the pass.