WQBA 1140 Univision Miami (Play-By-Play: A.J. Ricketts/Analyst: Patrick Murray)/WPRT The Game Nashville 102.5 FM/97.5 FM, WGNS Murfreesboro 1450 AM/100.5 FM (Play-By-Play: Chip Walters/Analyst: Wes Counts/Sidelines: Wayne Groce)
Location: Floyd Stadium, Murfreesboro, TN
Betting Line: MTSU 10 O/U 56
All-Time Series Record: MTSU leads 11-5 (Middle Tennessee won last matchup 31-28 in 2020)
Last Saturday’s 47-24 loss to Old Dominion seems like a distant memory given the events of the week for FIU football and athletics as a whole. On Wednesday, FIU announced that Executive Director of Sports and Entertainment Pete Garcia would step down from his after serving as the Panthers’ Athletic Director since 2006. The news comes at a tumultuous time for the team as they fell to 1-8 with the loss to the Monarchs. Head coach Butch Davis is in the final year of his contract and the news of an athletic director change inevitably puts focus on whether he will be tendered a new contract.
On the field, Davis’ focus is squarely on getting the Panthers their first win against FBS competition in over 700 days. In order for that to happen, it has to start the FIU run defense asserting themselves early and not letting a pedestrian Blue Raider rushing attack get going. Old Dominion rushed for 282 yards, including two-100 yard rushers in Elijah Davis and Blake Watson. As a whole, the run defense has struggled, ranking 10th in Conference USA and 109th in the nation, allowing 199.7 yards per game.
Offensively, D’Vonte Price was held to under 100 yards rushing for the seventh consecutive week, rushing for 45 yards on 10 carries. Price didn’t appear in the second half due to a lower-body injury. Postgame, Davis said that Price could have been available.
“D’Vonte had a shin injury and if we absolutely needed him, he could have returned, but we have to look out for him,” said Davis.
Price was rated as the third-best draft-eligible running back for next year’s NFL draft by ESPN’s Mel Kiper.
As a whole, FIU rushed for 107 yards, led by Lexington Joseph’s 54 yards and Eric Wilson Jr. added 30 carries on four attempts.
Through the air, quarterback Max Bortenschlager went 18-of-32 for 315 yards with two touchdowns. However, he also had a fourth-quarter pick-six as he tried to get rid of the ball under pressure, but was intercepted by ODU’s Deevee Harris — which put the game out of reach for good.
Bryce Singleton hauled in six catches for a career-high 199 yards and two touchdowns in the loss.
“Bryce has been an excellent leader for us, he’s out there fighting every play trying to make things happen and he’s always capable of providing a big play for us,” said Davis.
The FIU offensive line allowed five sacks in the loss, as the unit ranks 13th in C-USA having given up 29 sacks on the season.
Entering the season, Rick Stockstill looked for a shift in offensive philosophy, bringing in former North Carolina State starter Bailey Hockman to replace two-year starter Asher O’Hara, who transferred in the offseason. However, 2021 may have been the most unstable year at the quarterback spot in Stockstill’s 16 seasons at the helm of the Blue Raiders.
Rick Stockstill’s club still has a chance at a bowl game. Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images
Hockman left the program following the third game of the season, choosing to focus on his family. Backup Chase Cunningham started the next five contests and has played well, throwing for 16 touchdowns with three interceptions, but he suffered a season-ending injury in the Southern Miss contest. Stockstill has turned to true freshman Nick Vattiato, who began the season fourth on the depth chart. The Fort Lauderdale native was three-star recruit and went 24-of-41 for 205 yards with two touchdowns and five interceptions in the Blue Raiders 48-21 loss to Western Kentucky last Saturday.
Vattiato will need to get help from an MTSU rushing attack that again has struggled to find production from the running backs. Through nine contests, senior Chaton Mobley leads the team with 231 yards. Backups Martell Pettaway, Frank Peasant and Amir Rasul have rushed for a combined 407 yards.
MT’s Reed Blankenship has been one of the top players in C-USA for many years. Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Defensively, MTSU has been a middle-of-the-pack team, ranking fifth in run defense and ninth in pass defense among C-USA clubs. They’re led by veteran safeties Reed Blankenship and Gregory Grate Jr. Blankenship has been one of the top players in the league since arriving in 2017 and leads the team with 81 tackles, including eight tackles for loss. Grate is second on the team with 66 stops and leads the unit in interceptions.
An area that Middle Tennessee has been above-average in is making plays behind the line of scrimmage. Senior linebacker DQ Thomas has 11 tackles for loss and two sacks, while junior defensive end Jordan Ferguson leads C-USA with 14.5 tackles for loss on the year. The Blue Raiders are fifth in the league with 22 sacks.
The insertion of Vattiato at quarterback is a major wildcard in this contest. Making his second career start, the 6-0, 180-pounder has to cut down on the mistakes made in last week’s loss. Additionally, MTSU’s rushing attack will need to put the freshman in favorable down-and-distance situations.
For FIU, Davis has talked about having to play in excess of 15 freshmen or walk-on players due to injuries or player departures. If Bortenschlager can find a rhythm and connect with playmakers like Singleton and Tyrese Chambers, along with Price finding his footing, the Panthers will have a chance.