Know Thy Opponent 2011: Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders

It's that time again. The dawning of summer in the Midwest means it is time to start looking at our football opponents that are a few short months away. These previews are always time-consuming, but they are among the most things to write for the site. I love having a chance to take a look at who we face in the fall and how well we match up with them. I especially like new opponents, as it is nice to face someone different.

That is where Middle Tennessee State comes in. I am actually glad Kent State skipped town on us to get hammered by Alabama. It means we get a different type of opponent. This will be the first season since 1998 that we do not play a MAC opponent, and given our recent record against that conference it is probably a good thing. The Blue Raiders took Kent State's place as our season opener, and they are one of our first ever Sun Belt opponents.

Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders

2010 Record: 6-7

Bowl Result: Lost 35-21 to Miami (OH) in GoDaddy.com bowl

Blog Representation: None

Series with Purdue: First Meeting

Last Season for the Blue Raiders

This game ends up being a much better matchups for us this year than last because of the departure of Dwight Dasher. The dynamic quarterback was suspended for the first four games of last season, including a 24-17 opening loss to Minnesota where the Golden Gophers had the football for nearly 45 minutes and still almost lost. Dasher was a dual threat quarterback that could make a lot happen with his legs. That's a good thing considering that he had an awful season throwing the football with six touchdowns against 18 interceptions. Against Georgia Tech, Arkansas State, and Miami (OH) he threw four interceptions in each game.

Still, he scrapped and clawed MTSU to a bowl game by winning their final three contests. MTSU won at Western Kentucky, took their final home game against Florida Atlantic, then denied Florida International an outright Sun Belt crown by beating them 28-27 on the final day of the season in Miami. That got them into the GoDaddy.com bowl, where Dasher threw four picks in a 35-21 loss.

The excellent PreSnap Read predicted a 10-win season for the Blue Raiders last year, so 6-7 was a bit of a disappointment. They now have them rated as the #91 team in Division 1-A. That means we cannot afford to lose this game if we want to go to a bowl.

Middle Tennessee State Offense:

The blessing of Dasher's suspension is that MTSU had a chance to break in its new quarterbacks a year early. As is typical with smaller programs, there is an expected drop off when a talent like Dasher leaves. Junior Logan Kilgore and Senior Jeff Murphy had roughly equal snaps last year in Dasher's absence. Kilgore was slightly better with 50 of 80 completions for 540 yards, three touchdowns, and five interceptions. Murphy completed 31 of 53 passes for a better percentage, but had only 395 yards and an interception with no scores. There is no definite starter yet, so this battle will go into the fall and may not even be decided until someone trots out for the first series against us.

At running back MTSU also loses Phillip tanner, who ran for 928 yards and 13 touchdowns in addition to Dasher's 543 yards and eight scores. It's going to be hard to replace nearly 1,500 yards of rushing and 21 touchdowns. Then you consider that our very experienced defensive line of Kawann Short, Bruce Gaston, and a deep linebacking corps behind them will be going against a pretty green running game. This makes me think we should have an advantage. They did not sign a running back in their latest recruiting class, so that leaves D.D. Kyles (414-4) and Benjamin Cunningham (355-4) as the top two returning ballcarriers. This team ran for over 2,700 yards last season, and with the lack of experience at the quarterback position they may try to run even more at first.

The receivers didn't help out the quarterbacks much last season. Malcolm Beyah (29-388-2) and Sancho McDonald (21-321-1) are the top two returners and they are expected to help as MTSU looks to go with a no huddle attack. This doesn't make sense to me. You have a team that turned the ball over a lot last year, and now you want them to hurry the offense up? What are they going to do, turn it over faster? Receiver Christian Collis was one of their top recruits, so he could see some immediate action as a 6'1", 190 pound player.

As with any offense, their line will be critical as the unit looks to get moving. They gave up a modest 23 sacks last season, though that number may be skewed since Dasher was a very mobile quarterback. Right guard Preston Bailey, center Colin Boss and left guard Brandon McElroy are all returning starters battling injuries. Left tackle Mike Williams also started 10 games, giving them consistency in this critical area. This is where I lament the loss of Ryan Kerrigan once again, as at 6'3" 260 pounds Williams would have stood no chance against Kerrigan. The rest of the line is Big Ten-sized at over 300 pounds apiece, but they are tasked with stopping Short and Gaston on the interior.

Middle Tennessee State Defense:

The defense gave up over 5,400 yards last season and 44 touchdowns in 13 games. The translation? Even our mediocre at best offense of last year should be able to move the ball and score some points. Jamari Lattimore was their Kerrigan analogue with 68 tackles and 11.5 sacks, but he is awaiting a free agent deal once the NFL labor situation is finalized. Cornerback Rod Isaac was drafted in the 5th round by Jacksonville after leading them with three interceptions.

We should be excited that Ralph Bolden gets to make his triumphant return against a defensive line breaking in three starters. Even then they still gave up over 2,800 yards on the ground last year. We may not get to see much of our new passing game if Rob Henry, Akeem Shavers, Bolden, and everyone else simply gets to run all day on them. I don't have a problem with it, either, as I'll go with whatever works. Dearco Nolan and Omar McLendon are expected to be new starters along the line at the ends spots, with SaCoby Carter and Jimmy Staten at the tackle spots. These four players combined for one sack last season.

Two starters return at linebacker. Darin Davis and Justin Jones return as bookends at linebacker, giving them some promising pieces to build around. They will be busy with the problems along the defensive line. Corey Carmichael is likely the starting middle linebacker, but Davis and Jones will probably have to generate an exterior pass rush given they have more sacks than the entire returning defensive line. That could open things up for Henry or Robert Marve in the passing game. Davis was particularly versatile with 3.5 sacks and three interceptions last year.

The secondary has some experience with Arness Ikner returning at one of the cornerback spots. He'll be paired with Kenneth Gilstrap, who played sparingly last fall. Derrick Crumpton was last season's nickel back and he will move into the free safety position full time this year. Overall this is a young defense that has some experience in key spots, but it shouldn't be a huge concern. With more experience in 2010 they still gave up more than 30 points in five games. As long as we don't have any major problems I think we'll be fine.

Unfortunately, I can see us stopping ourselves. Last year we had no consistency at all on offense, mostly because of injuries. Even then, it seemed like we never gameplanned for the possibility of injuries. The Michigan game was a prime example. It is like we planned all week for Justin Siller to be completely healthy (even though he hadn't played in weeks). When he went down on the first series it was like we had no other plan whatsoever. That cannot happen this year, but I fear we're going to do the dreaded QB rotation between Marve and Henry, which rarely works.

Middle Tennessee State Special Teams:

Alan Gendreau was a solid kicker last year, hitting 10 of 12 field goals with a long of 55 yards. He'll be back to give them a threat to score any time they cross the 40, so it could be fun to watch him and Carson Wiggs exchange 60-yard bombs. Nathaniel Toulson will likely handle punting duties after averaging nearly 40 yards per kick in 16 attempts last year. He split time with Josh Davis, who graduated.

Eric Russell will likely be their primary kick returner after he averaged 26.3 yards per return last year, including a 97 yard return for a score. Their coverage only gave up 21 yards per return. In the punt return game Russell averaged 6.8 yards per return, but they gave up almost 10 yards per punt with one taken back all the way. Given our lack of a return game last season I expect this will be a wash. Once again, much of this category will be decided on our idiotic three-back formation on punts that invites a heavier rush.

Game Outlook:

If we do not win this game we have zero chance of making a bowl in 2011. I expect to be an improved football team. With the sheer number of bowl games out there and tie-ins for the Big Ten there is absolutely no reason not to expect a bowl game every year as long as you schedule yourself three winnable non-conference games. This team won 10 games in 2009, but they have lost a lot since then. We're playing at home against an opponent from a smaller conference. It has to be a victory.

I think we will see early on that the defense is going to be our strength. Losing Kerrigan is big, but the only other starter we lose is Jason Werner. I am excited to see what Ricardo Allen, Will Lucas, and Bruce Gaston can do as experienced and very talented sophomores. Theirs is an attack we should have little trouble stopping. They lost their primary playmakers from a year ago, threw 24 interceptions, and lost 14 fumbles. They averaged almost three turnovers per game and forced only 19 on the season. It should be as simple as don't screw up and wait for them to screw up.

Unfortunately, I lack confidence not only in our offense, but in some of our coaching decisions. We should be able to run the ball at will, but I can see us forcing a passing game that struggled even when healthy. I can see us sticking with a punt scheme that basically asks the opposition to block it. I can see us playing musical quarterbacks for the sake of it instead of naming one guy the starter and sticking with him so we can gain consistency.

Prediction:

Even with all those factors, this still should be a relatively easy victory. I don't think they have the offense to score much against our experienced defense, and we should be able to score enough to win. Bolden only falls short of 100 yards if we're dumb enough not to give him the ball less than 15 times. Even then, he could break a big run and get most of the way there like he did against Toledo in 2009. I think Henry runs the offense more efficiently and Allen gets at least one interception. Purdue 27, Middle Tennessee State 13.

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