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September 9, 2008

Dime Package-10 thoughts for week three

If people hadn't realized yet that the Middle Tennessee football program is on the map, most of them do now that the Blue Raiders have scored a major non-conference victory over Maryland.

This week's Dime Package takes a look at things we learned in the last week and glances ahead at the next big challenge for the program on the road at Kentucky.

DISSECTING THE O-LINE-Much has been made about the terrific performance by the Middle Tennessee offensive line against Maryland. The Blue Raiders yielded zero sacks against the Terrapins after allowing five in week one against Troy. While there is no denying the MT front was markedly improved, this week's game at Kentucky will be a much better indicator of where the Blue Raiders stand in the offensive trenches. Maryland didn't manage any sacks in its season opener against Delaware either, so the Terrapins haven't exactly been a great pass rushing team. Kentucky has a strong defensive front led by All-SEC performer Jeremy Jarmon. If the Blue Raiders slow this group down, they'll deserve even higher praise this week.

JUMBOTRON ENTERS BIG TIME-When Middle Tennessee debuted the "Blue Tube" jumbotron at Floyd Stadium, the big screen added an element to the Blue Raider gameday atmosphere that had been missing. The athletic department's use of the asset was raised to a new level Saturday in the Maryland game. When the Blue Raiders get ready for a big third down stand, video footage of defensive tackle Trevor Jenkins yelling at the crowd to stand up and make noise can't help but get fans fired up. The live press conference feed after the game for fans left in the stadium was an extra touch of "big-time" that helped cap one of the program's best days in history.

RISK TAKING STAFF-Middle Tennessee came out with all pistons firing against Maryland Saturday night, but the coaching staff also set an immediate tone that almost certainly helped the Blue Raiders play with a nothing-to-lose attitude. Rick Stockstill called for a fake punt on the first series and it worked to perfection with David DeFatta hitting Alvin Ingle to extend the drive that ultimately ended in a touchdown. Later in the first quarter, MT used a reverse to Malcolm Beyah to gain another 16 yards on the ground. It appeared another trick play could have been in the works when a backwards pass from Joe Craddock was dropped by Desmond Gee and recovered by Maryland. It appeared Gee was going to try to throw a forward pass after catching the ball but just took his eye off the football a split second too early.

SUN BELT MAKING STRIDES-Louisiana-Monroe came within a whisker of knocking off SEC foe Arkansas Saturday. Had the Warhawks finished off the Razorbacks, Saturday could have gone down as the best Saturday in the history of Sun Belt football. Middle Tennessee's win over Maryland and Florida Atlantic's sizeable win over UAB still gave the Sun Belt two very good non-conference wins. Arkansas State carried the banner in week one with an upset over Texas A&M. The Sun Belt has always had at least one team that was capable of pulling an upset in non-conference play, but now the league boasts more depth than ever. Because of that, it's not nearly as easy as it used to be for Power Six programs to find a cupcake opponent in the conference.

BEYAH, MCDONALD=THE FUTURE IS NOW-It's easy to conclude that freshmen receivers Malcolm Beyah and Sancho McDonald are the biggest pieces of the Blue Raider passing game's long term future. But it's looking more and more like that future is already here. Beyah has caught a touchdown in both games this year and electrified the crowd against Maryland with nearly 100 yards receiving on just four catches, a 16-yard run, and a long touchdown reception where he outran the Maryland defense despite losing a shoe. McDonald caught the other Blue Raider touchdown pass of the game in the first quarter and has uncanny natural instincts at the position considering he had never played it prior to his position switch midway through fall camp.

STEPPING UP WHEN NEEDED-When Stockstill announced sophomore cornerback Rod Issac would miss the Maryland game, pessimism prevailed among many Blue Raider fans. But senior Ted Riley and junior Marcus Udell stepped in to fill the void admirably opposite junior Alex Suber. It was Riley that made one of the game's biggest plays when he intercepted Maryland quarterback Chris Turner in the fourth quarter when the Terps were threatening to slice the MT margin back to a one possession lead.

BREAKING THE CODE OF THE KENTUCKY DEFENSE-For many years, the one thing that could be counted on from Kentucky football was a poor defense. The Wildcats have fielded several teams with significant offensive talent but no defensive teeth. That appears to be different this year and Rich Brooks made it clear to anyone who would listen leading up to the season that he had by far the best defense of his tenure in Lexington. Through two games, he has been proven right. The Wildcats have yielded only five combined points to Louisville and Norfolk State in their first two games. Is the defense that good or are the offenses it has faced that bad? Louisville looked hapless offensively in the season opener and Norfolk State is Norfolk State. It's not a stretch to say that Kentucky is better defensively than it has been in many years, especially with the experience advantage of starting entirely juniors and seniors. It will be very interesting to compare Middle Tenessee's offensive production against the Wildcats to what the Blue Raiders managed against Troy and Maryland.

WHERE DOES IT RANK?-Ranking the win over Maryland among the other great wins in Blue Raider football history has been great water cooler discussion for fans this week. It's a tough question to quantify right now because the definition of a great win can vary so much. Does one upset over a more highly regarded opponent rank among the greatest victories if that one upset was a statistical outlier in the midst of a streak of losing seasons? That was the case in 2005, when an 0-4 Middle Tennessee team knocked off an undefeated Vanderbilt squad in Nashville. Or does a great win become greater if it serves as a springboard to something far bigger? That's the biggest question about the Blue Raiders' win over Maryland. What will the team do with it? Do we ultimately look back on that win as the turning point in the program's 1-A history or do we look back on it and regard it as just a flash in the pan on a warm September evening? If it's the former, then it easily becomes the greatest win in the program's history. If it's the latter, then lump it in the same category as the Vanderbilt triumph of 2005.

ATTENDANCE CONSISTENCY-There was a time when a season opening home defeat meant a devastating drop in Floyd Stadium attendance for the rest of the season. Think back just a few years ago to the 2002 and 2003 campaigns, when large home opening crowds left disappointed and the Blue Raiders played the rest of the year in front of increasingly fewer fans. The final home games of those two seasons didn't even draw 10,000 fans combined. Those days appear to be over. The Blue Raiders suffered a tough setback to Troy in the home opener and the fans rebounded right along with the team by turning out in even stronger numbers for the Maryland game. Credit is due in several places, but the gameday operation at Middle Tennessee is immensely improved over seasons past and Stockstill has had the team in the Sun Belt championship hunt each year. In his two-plus seasons in Murfreesboro, the Blue Raiders have not had a crowd of less than 12,000.

LATTIMORE STAKING HIS CLAIM-Defensive end Jamari Lattimore was elevated to the top of the depth chart after the week one loss to Troy and he didn't disappoint in his starting debut against Maryland. Lattimore made the most of his chance by picking up two tackles and a key sack near the end of the first half that played a big role in preventing Maryland from having a chance to tie the game before halftime. Lattimore took the spot of Chris McCoy, who Stockstill thinks can play at a higher level than he has displayed. McCoy played in a reserve role against Maryland but did not record any tackles. He had one tackle and a pass breakup against Troy.


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