Last year's bowl snub left Middle Tennessee frustrated
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It's definitely doable, but Middle Tennessee must win three of its last five games to be bowl eligible at 6-6. If that scenario plays out, the Blue Raiders have a much better chance of playing in the postseason than they did last year.
Here's the dark punch line: They were 8-4 in 2012. Smoked Georgia Tech 49-28, to boot.
The Raiders' problem came in the season finale, a game against Arkansas State for the Sun Belt championship. Nothing went right for the visiting Raiders, who got smashed 45-0.
When the bowl selection dust cleared, Arkansas State headed to the game in Mobile. Two other SBC teams found a bowl - Louisiana-Lafayette to New Orleans and Western Kentucky to Detroit. The Raiders didn't play the Ragin' Cajuns and they did beat the Hilltoppers.
It just so happened MTSU announced it was moving to Conference USA on Nov. 29, two days before the Arkansas State game. The school had wanted to make the move for some time, and the SBC's annual bowl situation was no small reason.
"With what happened last year, going 8-4 and not getting in a bowl game, it was really frustrating and disappointing," said coach Rick Stockstill. "So yes, sir, I was [enthusiastic]."
But the Blue Raiders (3-4, 1-2 C-USA) are having trouble holding up their end of the deal, entering their home game Thursday against Marshall (4-2, 2-0) on a three-game losing streak. Even if they lose the 7:30 p.m. contest to the Thundering Herd, they can win three among these four opponents - Alabama-Birmingham, Florida International, Southern Mississippi and Texas-El Paso, who are a combined 4-19.
To do that, the Raiders' offensive line has to heal and the quarterback situation probably needs to return to normal. Injuries have hit very hard on the front, so much so that the Raiders have played three different centers and a true freshman at right guard.
That helped explain why Wildcat-type freshman quarterback Austin Grammer played most of the Blue Raiders' 34-7 disaster a week ago at North Texas. Fifth-year QB Logan Kilgore, a 6,000-yard passer in his career, sat out after the second possession.
Grammer rushed for 106 yards and a touchdown, but he was 6 of 22 passing for 36 yards. Kilgore was 8 for 8 in his early action, though for just 30 yards.
"We went in with a plan [in which] he was going to play in the third or fourth series no matter what the score was, no matter how good Logan was doing," Stockstill said. "It became evident by then, we lost our right tackle on the fourth play of the game, we threw a redshirt freshman in and we weren't going to be able to protect."
Before the North Texas game, the Blue Raiders lost 24-17 at home to East Carolina. The Pirates had the ball the final 11:25, except for one play - a Kilgore interception.
That came after a forgettable 37-10 loss at Brigham Young. The week before that, MTSU and Florida Atlantic - the other team accepting the November invitation to C-USA - played an overtime thriller with the Raiders prevailing 42-35.
That game ended when free safety Kevin Byard intercepted FAU quarterback Jaquez Johnson. That was a typical big play for the 5-foot-11, 216-pound sophomore, who was a Freshman All-America pick by the Football Writers Association of America.
"I go against him every day in practice. I've played against NFL defenders, both in junior college and here," Kilgore said. "I know what they look like and I know he's got a chance to be a very special player. He's very dynamic, open-field tackling and making plays on balls.
"I'm excited to see what he can do against a very good passing attack this week. In this game, he'll have to have some impact plays, that's for sure."
Jordan Parker is the team's leading rusher (526 yards, four TDs), with Reggie Whatley (343 yards, three TDs, 6.0 per carry) one of the team's fastest players. Kilgore has thrown for 1,086 yards and six TDs, but has eight interceptions.
Nine different receivers have at least a catch per game, led by Tavarres Jefferson's 25 for 320 yards and a touchdown. Kyle Griswould is next with 24 catches for 191 yards.
Griswould returns punts, and has this statistical oddity: He owns a 57-yard TD return, but has lost 16 yards on the other seven attempts.
Linebacker T.T. Barber leads the team in tackles (76), tackles for loss (seven) and has two interceptions. Jimmy Staten and Patrick McNeil (combined 37 tackles, four for loss) are the bedrock defensive tackles.
Stockstill, in his eighth season, entered C-USA as the league's dean of coaches. The early 1980s Florida State quarterback is 46-48 overall, 33-23 in Sun Belt/C-USA play, and he improved his team from 2-10 in 2011 to that 8-4 last year.
He led the Blue Raiders to a 10-3 mark in 2009, the first time a Sun Belt team won 10.
"I'm proud of everything we've done here, what we've accomplished at Middle Tennessee," he said. "I've very fortunate and honored to be coach here."
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.