Middle Tennessee (6-6, 5-3) and Miami (9-4, 8-1) entered the season going in different directions. One has to wonder if they saw each other passing by going back in the opposite direction? It’s not just Miami’s overachieving season where meeting expectations just meant not getting blown out or Middle Tennessee’s underachieving year that brought the growth of the program to a screeching halt. It’s the fact that both teams – despite two very different paths to get to Mobile – match up very well against each other.
When the GoDaddy.com Bowl Committee was looking at which teams would offer the best match-up it’s clear they did their homework. Bowl president, Jerry Silverstein, acknowledged as much during the announcement.
"Both of these teams have exciting offenses and have shown at times that they can play good defense too, Silverstein said. “The matchup that we're going to have is going to be very competitive. Hopefully we'll have a very close game and we'll have something that everyone here and across the nation will be excited about.”
Although Silverstein likes his match-up and did a great job putting these two teams together, he may be underselling the two defensive units. The reasons are based on the very match-ups he discussed during the announcement, and BlueRaiderZone.com will analyze that greater detail here…
Looking at the stats alone something jumps out immediately--both defenses are conditioned to control the opposing offense’s strength. In this case, Miami gains most of their yards through the air while Middle Tennessee has been excellent in pass defense all season. The Blue Raiders offense has gotten it done on the ground where Miami ranks as one of the top defenses in the nation against the run. Because both defenses are designed to stop the other team's strength on offense, you have to wonder if either team will try to go against its tendencies in an attempt to exploit weaknesses?
Statistically, the match-up looks fairly even on paper. Middle Tennessee averaged more than a touchdown better per game than Miami (27-20); however, the Redhawks defense allowed only 23 points per contest compared to the Blue Raiders defense which allowed 27.
Miami ranked 33rd nationally and 3rd in the MAC in passing offense. Miami gained its yards through the air by nearly a three-to-one margin, and the Redhawks threw the ball on 53% of their plays.
Middle Tennessee’s offense ran the football on 58% of its plays leading to a more balanced attack averaging 193 passing and 178 rushing.
Defensively, the statistics convey Middle Tennessee was better in pass defense ranking 24th nationally and Miami was better at stopping the run ranking 19th nationally allowing only 121 yards per game on the ground.
Miami’s methodical approach to its offense has resulted in winning time of possession in all but one game this season. Middle Tennessee on the other hand doesn’t emphasize time of possession with an offense built on tempo and quick scoring drives. With that said, the Blue Raiders won time of possession only once all season and that came in a 27-point loss.
But statistics only tell part of the story. A deeper dive into each team’s tendencies underscore why this game may be decided by defense and not offense.
When Miami has the ball…
Look for Sun Belt Defensive Player of Year, Jamari Lattimore, and a unit that likes to bring a myriad of blitzes to be licking their chops. Lattimore is tied for the single season sacks record and knows that Miami is going to throw the football, but he - along with his defensive teammates - may need to exercise patience and discipline. Although Miami throws the football more often than not, the philosophy includes a lot of timing routes with a quick quarterback drop, screen passes, and short underneath routes. It will not be all that unfamiliar to Middle Tennessee fans particularly if Zac Dysert, who earned second-team All-MAC honors, is not ready to return from a spleen laceration and Austin Boucher is the quarterback. In the three games since Boucher took over for the injured Dysert, the Miami offense looks a lot like Middle Tennessee’s offense did during the Clint Marks era. In fact, Boucher is so similar with his left-handed throwing motion, he might make some think Marks has returned to play in a red and white uniform.
The challenge for Lattimore and the defensive pass rush is going to be avoiding getting too far up field on screen passes and draws. Miami’s offense uses these very effectively to control an opposing pass rush. Furthermore, since Boucher took over near the end of the season, the Miami coaching staff has elected to keep the playbook fairly simple for the redshirt freshman. Despite that, the Miami offense hasn’t missed a beat with Boucher behind center. In fact, Boucher’s passer efficiency rating is higher than Dysert’s and he has managed the game well and limited turnovers throwing only one interception during his three starts. Furthermore, he has been poised and confident in his three starts. Boucher orchestrated the Redhawk offense like a veteran in the MAC Championship Game completing 29-of-46 for 333 yards passing, so he isn’t likely to be intimidated by playing in his first bowl game.
Boucher has only appeared in five games this season, but you should expect Miami to open up the playbook a little more with the extra time before the bowl game and as the staff’s confidence in him grows. He has many weapons to throw to led by Armand Robison and Nick Harwell who combined for over 1,700 receiving yards this season. Both receivers earned second-team All-MAC honors, although Robinson, who has 90 catches for 981 yards on the year was snubbed and probably should have received first-team honors. The senior torched Northern Illinois’ defense in the MAC Championship Game with 14 receptions for 176 yards and a touchdown.
The match-up between Boucher, his talented stable of receivers and an experienced Middle Tennessee secondary presents the first key to the game and will be fun to watch as the game progresses. Seniors Kevin Brown, Rod Issac, and Jeremy Kellem have combined for 110 starts and the threesome has started 28 of the past 29 games together. If Middle Tennessee's secondary blankets the Redhawks receivers just long enough it will disrupt Miami's timing pass offense and allow Lattimore and others to force Boucher into mistakes.
On the ground, Thomas Merriweather has accumulated more than 800 yards rushing and averaged over five yards per carry. Although Miami has not run the ball with great effectiveness this year, Thomas (who’s game looks a lot like Tanners) will certainly be a factor in this game, especially if Middle Tennessee’s experienced secondary limits opportunities for Miami in the passing game. Miami has huge offensive tackles and they may try to exploit Middle Tennessee’s defensive ends who are small, fast and like to get up the field to rush the quarterback. The Blue Raiders may see a plethora draws to the edge and screens passes in an effort to leverage Middle’s aggressiveness. Although the match-up between receivers and the secondary are going to go a long way in determining the outcome, the second key to the game is how disciplined the Middle Tennessee defense stays while trying to get pressure on Boucher. If Miami is able to run the ball with draws and misdirection or gain huge chunks of yards on screen passes, Middle Tennessee may spend most of the game playing catch-up.
Miami epitomizes the team concept. Only one player on Miami’s squad earned first-team All-MAC honors and it was the kicker. Yet, the Redhawks have played fundamental football on offense doing just enough to get by, which translated into nine wins. With a defense that ranks 14th and 15th nationally in sacks and tackles for loss, respectively, and one of the most experienced secondary’s in all of college football, the Blue Raiders should be able to limit a pass-oriented offense that only scored more than 30 once all season.
Edge: Middle Tennessee
When Middle Tennessee has the ball…
It’s no secret the offense revolves around senior quarterback, Dwight Dasher. The dual-threat quarterback has endured a difficult year both on and off the field. After accepting an improper loan, Dasher was suspended for the first four games of the season. This proved particularly problematic for Dasher and the offense, because he is a rhythm quarterback. It took Dasher halfway through the season to eventually get comfortable in Tony Franklin’s “System” last season on his way to becoming just the third person in NCAA history to pass for over 2,500 yards and rush for more than 1,000 yards in the same season. Now under his third different offensive coordinator, it took Dasher about the same amount of time this season to develop a rapport with Shultz. The only problem was halfway through the season for Dasher was about nine games deep into the actual schedule. It’s not too much of a leap to think that Dasher is just now hitting his stride in the offense and that could spell problems for a Miami defense that hasn’t faced a dual threat signal caller the caliber of Dasher this season.
In his last two games, Dasher has accumulated over 500 yards of total offense and accounted for five touchdowns. And let us not forget what he did to Southern Miss’ defense a year ago with the extra preparation time when he set a new NCAA record for the most rushing yards in a bowl game with 201 breaking Vince Young’s previous mark. Ironically, much like Miami, Southern Miss entered that game allowing just 121 yards per game as well.
Aside from Dasher, the Blue Raiders will rely heavily on a trio of talented running backs including Phillip Tanner who has scored over 30 touchdowns in his career at Middle Tennessee. Tanner will be spelled by a speedy D. D. Kyles and all-purpose back Ben Cunningham. All four including Dasher have over 300 yards rushing or more led by Tanner’s 841, and head coach Rick Stockstill likes to use all three until one emerges with the hottest hand. Look to see Cunningham more on third downs due to his downhill running style and as the best pass blocking back.
As mentioned previously, the Miami defense has been stout against run defenses all season. Expect Miami to believe that it can handle Middle Tennessee’s offense by keeping its base package on the field for most of the game even on passing downs. Miami will anticipate it can limit Middle Tennessee’s ground game with its front seven without having to compromise its pass defense by walking up a safety. If Middle Tennessee proves it can gain yards on the ground, Miami may be forced to put eight in the box to make Dasher beat them through the air as he did in the final game of the regular season against FIU. Although Miami has been difficult to run on this season, Cincinnati rushed for 384 yards on the Redhawk defense with an offense that is almost a carbon copy of Middle Tennessee’s. This will be the third key of the game. Schulz can’t afford to fall in love with calling run plays, because Miami will likely have success penetrating Middle Tennesee’s offensive line allowing linebackers to key on Dasher and whichever of the three running backs are in the game.
Miami’s defense is led by a defensive line that is big, athletic, and capable of getting penetration to slow Middle Tennessee’s ground game. Blocking the two Browns (Austin and Jordain) will be the first step for the Blue Raiders to ensure the offensive line can get to the second level and occupy linebackers Jerrell Wedge and Evan Harris. If Middle Tennessee is forced to double-team either Brown, particularly Austin who is a disruptive force on the line, Miami’s linebackers will be allowed to run unabated and make plays. Harris and Wedge rank first and second, respectively on the team in tackles further indicating Miami’s defensive line does great work occupying offensive linemen. All three of Miami’s starting linebackers are big and can run. For Middle Tennessee to have success on the ground, they’ll have to contend with a very strong front seven and hope it can force Miami’s secondary to have to make plays in run support. The reality for Middle Tennessee is they are likely going to have to throw the ball to win. The offensive game plan for Middle Tennessee may very well be to come out throwing the football with the intent to open running lanes as the game progresses.
In the secondary, Middle Tennessee will find opportunities it can exploit. While the Redhawks possess one of the nation’s top run defenses, the Miami secondary has been consistent but not spectacular. Miami’s defensive backs aren’t as fast as what Middle Tennessee sees in the Sun Belt, and you should expect to see Schultz use speedy wideouts Malcolm Beyah, Tavares Jefferson, and Sancho McDonald to try to get behind the Redhawks secondary for some big plays down the field. A true freshman back-up cornerback, Dayonne Nunley, leads the team in interceptions. Nunley has played a lot this season; however, primarily in the Redhawks nickel package and rotating in to spell Brandon Stephens, who missed a game earlier in the season.
Middle Tennessee possesses a Lou Groza Award Candidate in Alan Gendreau, who has connected on 10-of-12 field goals this season including a long of 55 yards. His career percentage is well over 80%. Miami’s Trevor Cook is no slouch. The senior placekicker has connected on 16-of-22 field goals this season with the longest being 48 yards. Since sustaining a knee injury in mid-October; however, Cook has made just 6-of-11 attempts since returning. The Blue Raider punt unit boasts a two plus yard per net average over Miami. Middle Tennessee also carries a better punt return and kick return average as well. Middle’s Eric Russell is the only kick or punt returner with a touchdown this season between the two teams. Middle Tennessee has blocked five kicks and Miami has blocked four.
Edge: Middle Tennessee
Despite some of the moaning from various “sports writers,” kudo’s to the bowl committee in Mobile. The match-up between Middle Tennessee pits strength versus strength on both sides of the ball, and is probably the best matchup of the three bowl games between Sun Belt and MAC teams. Miami is an efficient passing football team and Middle Tennessee is equally adept at defending the pass. Middle Tennessee has run the ball well out of the spread most of the season, which plays right into the hands of Miami’s stout run defense. As the saying goes a good defense beats a good offense.
However, as previously pointed out, Miami has not faced a quarterback this season that is a true dual threat equally as dangerous as a passer and runner as Dwight Dasher. Yes, Dasher has had a miserable season, but he led the team to three straight wins when Middle Tennessee had its back literally up against the goal line. Dasher has also found a comfort zone in Schultz offense which has allowed him and the team to reduce the team’s turnover problems that were so bad that Middle Tennessee still ranks last in the nation. And that is the fourth and final key to the game. If Middle Tennessee wins the turnover battle, it has simply been difficult to beat during Rick Stockstill’s tenure as head coach. On the other hand, the Blue Raiders have never been elite enough of a program to win games if they lose the turnover equation.
Miami is going to force Dasher to beat them through the air, and based on what Miami has done this season they should be able to do it without discretionary help from the secondary. He did that a lot in 2009, but this season he never truly seemed to get comfortable in the offense. However, Dasher did make plays in the passing game in the final game of year in a win or go home affair against FIU. If Middle Tennessee plays similar to the final three weeks of the season, that will mean it has played an efficient game and the outcome will be settled late in a close affair. If Middle Tennessee turns it over and Miami runs the ball as it did in the first half of the MAC Championship Game, it will open up the passing game and the Redhawks will bury the Blue Raiders by two or three touchdowns. The Blue Raiders cannot afford to let Miami control the tempo, the clock, and create a match-up problem in the run game. In other words, if Miami’s weakness in the running game turns out to be less so than Middle Tennessee’s the outcome of the game may be decided in that phase of the game and early.
Miami has played better football this season as a team. And though it has a redshirt freshman who may be starting just his fourth game, the Miami offense is capable of winning with him. But Middle Tennessee has shown it can be resilient in the face of adversity as they salvaged a season mired in problems both on and off the field. Remember, this is a team that returned a plethora of its starters and its two-deep roster from last year’s 10-win team. The transition has been difficult with two new coordinators, but Middle Tennessee has the talent to beat Miami. The question is going to be whether the extra month is going to be enough for a team that’s taken way too long to come together this season. Because of each team’s strengths, this will be a low scoring affair.
The final? We will go with 23-19. The winner? In games decided by a touchdown or less, Miami is 7-0, so the advantage goes to Miami in a close game. But in a close contest where both teams match up well, the fewest mistakes including turnovers become the most important key to the game. This is where Middle Tennessee struggled early in the year, but it’s also a problem that appeared to be corrected in the final three weeks of the season as the Blue Raiders won the turnover battle during its three game win streak. If they avoid them it will be difficult for Miami to completely shut down the Blue Raider offense. In the four games the Blue Raiders won or tied in turnover margin, they averaged 33 points per game. Miami didn’t score that many points in any single game all season. To be safe, we’ll pick the team that has the fewest turnovers.