When Tennessee native I’Tavius Mathers decided to leave Ole Miss after the 2014 season, he considered only one school: Middle Tennessee in his hometown of Murfreesboro.
Mathers, who sat out last season after playing three years for the Rebels, needed only three games to put his name in the record books for the Blue Raiders.
In last week’s 41-21 win at Bowling Green, the former four-star running back became the second Middle Tennessee player with 100 yards rushing and receiving in the same game. Mathers rushed for a career-high 157 yards and three touchdowns and caught four passes for 103 yards and another score to garner C-USA Offensive Player of the Week honors.
The only other Middle Tennessee player with 100 yards rushing and receiving in the same game was Don Calloway in 2000 against Louisiana.
“It was exciting to make history,” said Mathers, whose Blue Raiders (2-1) open Conference USA play against Louisiana Tech (1-2) at Saturday on ASN. “I didn’t know about it until after the game when the reporters told me. It’s pretty cool to be a part of history.”
The fact Mathers made history while playing in a driving rain storm made what the redshirt senior did even more impressive. He scored on a 53-yard run in the first quarter and later turned a short pass from quarterback Brent Stockstill into a 78-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage in the third quarter.
Mathers — who also had two short rushing TDs — helped the Blue Raiders score 27 unanswered points to rally for the win on the road. He rushed for 100 yards once in his three years at Ole Miss (138 yards against Idaho in 2013).
“I thought he made a huge impact on the game and showed his versatility in both the running and passing games,” Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill said after the game. “I liked the way he finished runs by always going forward and playing physical. He just played a really good football game in all aspects.”
Mathers was quick to thank his coaches and teammates for making his historic day possible. The younger Stockstill, the son of coach Stockstill and reigning C-USA Freshman of the Year, also graduated from a Murfreesboro high school (Siegel).
“My offensive coordinator (Tony Franklin) told us we could run our offense in any type of weather, so I was just ready to play my part,” Mathers said. “That means blocking and catching or running the ball. When it started raining a little harder we started to run the ball more, and I knew I had to be productive.”
Before college, Mathers was productive at Blackman High School, where he became the first Rutherford County prep player to rush for 2,000 yards in a 10-game regular season. He was named Tennessee’s Gatorade Player of the Year as a junior after rushing for 2,614 yards and 29 TDs. As a senior he rushed for 2,253 yards and 27 scores before signing with Ole Miss over South Carolina and Kentucky as part of Hugh Freeze’s first recruiting class. Rivals.com rated him the nation’s 20th-best Class of 2012 running back.
Mathers played in every game at Ole Miss as a true freshman in 2012, averaging 7.7 yards on 27 carries. He closed the season with his best game (96 yards on six rushes) in a win over Pitt in the BBVA Compass Bowl. His 62-yard scoring run was the longest in the bowl’s history.
The following season he missed the opener with an ankle injury and started only once but still topped the team in rushing (563 yards and three TDs on 95 attempts). He left the Rebels after finishing the 2014 season as their third-leading rusher (286 yards and three scores on 67 carries).
It was time for Mathers to come home and play at Middle Tennessee in front of his parents, two brothers and grandmother.
“Things didn’t go as I hoped they would at Ole Miss, so at the end of my third year there it was time to go,” Mathers said. “I felt like I should come back home for my last year (of college) because I’m close to my family and didn’t want them to worry about traveling to my games.”
The 5-11, 197-pound Mathers has played only three games for him so far, but Coach Stockstill has been pleased with his new running back. The feeling is mutual as Mathers sees his new coach as a father figure.
This season Mathers is tied for the C-USA lead with five overall TDs and four rushing scores and ranks fourth with 284 rushing yards. He’s also caught 13 passes for 186 yards and one TD after making 18 total receptions at Ole Miss.
“I love I’Tavius, and I love his attitude and work ethic,” Coach Stockstill said. “I think he will have a great year, and I hope he has the best year of his life.”
So far, so good for Mathers, who believes he made a great decision to finish his collegiate career with the Blue Raiders. Mathers earned his undergraduate degree last May and plans to coach whenever his playing days are over.
Right now, his primary goal is to do whatever it takes to keep winning games.
“I’m all about winning, on and off the field,” Mathers said. “I’m looking forward to winning a lot more games and hopefully playing for a conference championship. If we keep getting better each week, I think the sky is the limit for us.”