Middle Tennessee starting to pull away in Conference USA

It's easy to overlook Middle Tennessee in this week's USA Today Amway Coaches Poll. But the Blue Raiders are there, listed among others receiving votes:
Houston 111; Tennessee 38; San Diego State 36; South Florida 34; Southern California 28; Arkansas 10; Troy 7; Navy 6; Middle Tennessee 5; Wyoming 5; Appalachian State 4; Northwestern 3; Tulsa 3; Minnesota 2; Mississippi 1; Louisiana Tech 1; Pittsburgh 1.

The Blue Raiders (6-2) have not been overlooked by the nation's coaches, and certainly not by their rivals in Conference USA.

“They are a great team," said FIU quarter Alex McGough after his team's 42-35 loss to MTSU on Saturday. "We knew we had to score points tonight. We just kept going and thought about scoring tonight because they are so good.”

As Missouri discovered in a 51-45 loss to MTSU two weeks ago. The Blue Raiders piled up 584 yards of total offense in their fourth victory against an SEC opponent.

"To win on the road here and to beat these guys is big," an emotional Rick Stockstill after his first win as ahead coach against an SEC team. "If you think about what they've done here. They are used to winning. So to come on the road and beat a team in this environment is a phenomenal win. Nobody thought we could win but us."

Nobody thinks that now. The Blue Raiders are bowl eligible for the fifth consecutive year and are going for their first 7-2 start since 2001.

"It's elating," Stockstill said this week. "I'm extremely happy and proud for these players. We've been bowl eligible eight out of my 11 years. That's hard to do, especially with the people we play out of conference. I'm really proud of what we have done."

Stockstill said he's also proud of his team's 3-1 record in games decided by a touchdown or less because it shows MTSU is about more than scoring points.

"I think this team has a great mental toughness about them," he said. "Four of the last five games have been decided by one possession. I think the mental toughness and competitiveness and what the fourth quarter means to us and how we approach the fourth quarter means a lot to us. We talk about never flinching or losing faith or hope.

"You can be up 21 or down 21 and you have a chance to win every game. I think we have done that this year. I think this team has strong character and a strong belief in one another. They are accountable for each other. They are going to lay it on the line for one another ... Their mental toughness and physical toughness is going to overcome whatever situation they are in."

They haven't faced many deficits to overcome this season. The Blue Raiders are third in C-USA with 40.5 points per game, led by senior running back I'Tavius Mathers and sophomore quarterback Brent Stockstill, the coach's son.

Brent told ASN in September that he loves playing for his father. "I tell people all the time that it is truly a blessing to spend every day with one of your best friends, who is also a person that raised you,” Brent said. “It is a pretty special relationship that we have. He treats everybody on the team like they are his sons and he doesn’t treat me any different. I am honored to play for him.”

Stockstill, C-USA's Offensive Player of the Week after throwing 318 yards and four TDs against FIU,  is No. 2 in C-USA and No. 8 in FBS with 2,689 passing yards. He's also thrown 26 touchdowns, tied with Louisiana Tech Ryan Higgins, et a school record against FIU with his 56th career TD pass — in only his 20th game.

Higgins leads Stockstill in passing yards with 2,914 yards, but Stockstill triumphed Sept. 24. He helped MTSU rally from a 27-7 deficit to a 34-31 victory against the Bulldogs, the biggest comeback under Coach Stockstill.

Mathers was the big hero, running for 163 yards and scoring four TDs, three rushing and one passing. He also caught five passes for 74 yards. "I can't take all of the credit," Mathers said. "That's the offensive line — they've done a good job of blocking and making my job easy once again."

Mathers is making it look easy, leading C-USA with 1,066 yards and 12 TDs rushing. One of the top five rushers in FBS, he has six consecutive 100-yard games — one shy of tying the school record. He can do that Saturday against UTSA.

After that come road games at Marshall Nov. 12 on ASN and Charlotte and the regular-season finale against Florida Atlantic at home.

If they run the table, the Blue Raiders could face Louisiana Tech again in the conference championship game on Dec. 3. The team with the highest winning percentage will host, but that doesn't not matter to MTSU. The win at FIU was the fourth road victory for MTSU, one of five FBS teams with that many this season.

"That's something we've been really good at," Brent Stockstill said. "I think it just speaks to the maturity of our team and the character we have on both sides of the ball to stay focused."

The Blue Raiders aren't overlooking any opponents. And as the this week's USA Today Amway Coaches Poll shows, they're also not being overlooked.

Above: Middle Tennessee's I'Tavius Mathers, who leads Conference USA in rushing, has run his streak of 100-yard games to six in a row. (Courtesy Brent Beerends/MT Athletic Communications)
Middle: Brent and Rick Stockstill. (Courtesy DNJ Sports)

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