Western Kentucky Hilltoppers at Middle Tennesse Blue Raiders– Preview, TV, Streaming, Radio, Live Stats, Betting Line, 100 Miles of Hate

Western Kentucky at Middle Tennessee

  • Start Time: 2:30 PM EST. Saturday, October 15.
  • Location: Floyd Stadium, Murfreesboro, Tennessee
  • TV: ESPN3
  • Streaming: WatchESPN
  • Radio: WKU: HereMiddle Tennessee: Here.
  • Records: WKU: 3-3. Middle Tennessee: 4-1.
  • Live Stats: Here.
  • Line: MTSU -2.5. O/U: 76.

When MTSU passes: Advantage: Blue Raiders. The Hilltopper secondary was repeatedly burned by Louisiana Tech in their last outing. They are the #126 ranked passing defense in the nation according to S&P+ numbers and give up a successful passing play on 45.5% of opportunities. The only players that have shown an ability to get to the passer are Keith Brown, Joel Iyiebunwie, Chris Johnson, and Omarius Bryant. They have combined for 12 of the team’s 16 total sacks on the season. The WKU secondary has only picked off two passes on the year, with the cornerbacks being huge liabilities versus the deep ball.

In case you haven’t heard the name Richie James, you better get used to hearing it over and over on Saturday. The sophomore receiver has excellent rapport with quarterback Brent Stockstill. He is targeted on 28.8% of all passing plays, catching over 61% of those passes. James is on pace to obliterate multiple school records before his career ends. The Blue Raiders have done an excellent job of building depth with multiple starters never getting a chance to play due to injury.

Ty Lee, Patrick Smith, and running back I’Tavius Mathers have stepped up in their absence to catch a combined 61 passes for eight touchdowns. Mathers is particularly impressive considering he is the #1 running back and is on the field for a majority plays, showing very little fatigue. Dennis Andrews has struggled a bit in transition from running back at Georgia Tech to wide receiver at MTSU. He is incredibly explosive when he catches the ball with a yards per catch average over 16.

When WKU passes: Advantage: Hilltoppers. The numbers haven’t been quite as gaudy as last season under Doughty, but Mike White has looked impressive in his first season as starting quarterback for WKU. He has a 14:3 touchdown to interception ratio, has thrown for over 1,700 yards, and connects on 65.8% of his pass attempts. Backup Tyler Ferguson is one of the better backups in the nation and would likely start for at least half of CUSA.

When White passes, the ball is nearly always headed in the direction of Taywan Taylor of Nicholas Norris. The duo have combined to make 78 catches for 1,233 yards and 12 touchdowns on the year. Both have caught 65% of their targets and have the ability to take a short pass to the house as well as catch the deep ball. MTSU will struggle with both, just like in 2015.

Outside of the big two, junior Nacarius Fant has started to show flashes of a big season in 2016, but has struggled a bit more with consistency. The position to watch is at tight end. They haven’t been able to go to that well as often as in 2015, but Stevie Donatell and Shaquille Johnson have slowly turned into a solid duo capable of catching a couple big passes per game.

Outside of a shootout versus Louisiana Tech, the MTSU pass defense has been very solid this fall. They are top 46 in all Havoc statistics, with eight different players earning one or more sacks on the season. Even defensive back Dontavius Heard has 1.5 sacks on the year. Expect MTSU to start the game with lots of man to man coverage from cornerbacks Jeremy Cutrer and Mike Minter while attempting to put lots of pressure on White.

Safety Alex Dale has been incredibly important in leading MTSU to a top 15 ranking in defensive IsoPPP, meaning teams will gain yards, but do not hit many explosive plays downfield.

When MTSU runs the ball: Advantage: Hilltoppers. This is where things get interesting. MTSU was God awful at running the ball in 2015, allowing WKU to focus only on stopping the passing game. That allowed the game to get way out of hand. That changes this year as an altered scheme under a new offensive coordinator and a four-star talent in the backfield have seen MTSU actually look like a solid to good rushing team.

Senior I’Tavius Mathers is up to 582 yards and eight touchdowns on the season. He has an uncanny ability to never miss when he has the chance at a big run. He may get stuffed a few times in a row, but sooner or later he is going to hit a 40-50 yard run and change the entire game. Backup Terelle West has shown the ability to hit the hole, but lacks the explosiveness of Mathers.

Then you have the WKU rush defense. They have been excellent this season, even shutting down Alabama for a majority of the game. They are top 13 in the S&P+ rankings, and stuff a play for no gain or a loss on nearly 25% of all rushing attempts. One of the reasons for success is in the middle. Linemen Omarius Bryant and Chris Johnson have combined for 12.5 tackles for loss. Both are in the 290-310 range and explode off the snap.

It also doesn’t hurt to throw out a pair of 240 pound linebackers in Keith Brown and TJ McCollum. If McCollums is healthy enough to play, life will be very hard for Mathers and company.

When WKU runs the ball: Advantage: Push. The Hilltoppers headed into the season with a combination of backs that rivaled anyone in the conference. Injuries have taken their toll, taking away thunder component D’Andre Ferby very early and limiting the playing time of lightning Anthony Wales.

Even so, Wales has been great when in the game, sporting a team-high 6.0 yards per carry. He is the key to WKU running a balanced offense and not going the route of MTSU last season. Expect lots of carries for the senior running back.

If Wales is ineffective or sustains an injury, Quinton Baker has proven to be a solid back. The problem for WKU is the fact that he is their version of Terelle West, a solid player that will get better as he matures but unable to give the jolt of Wales.

The Hilltoppers will be able to run the ball versus MTSU. The Blue Raiders give up yards on nearly every play, but do an excellent job of forcing a team to go 12-14 plays for a score. Linebakers Darius Harris, DJ Sanders, and Chris Melton are good players, but tend to get lost in the trash on too many running plays. That is a bit surprising as they sport two 310+ pound defensive linemen that can beat double teams regularly. Since the front seven can get manhandled a bit, the ability of the secondary to make tackles has been key all season long.

X-Factor: I’Tavius Mathers, MTSU. If you have read this far, you have noticed his name mentioned multiple times. Mathers is a threat in the run game and as a receiver. He has led the team in both categories in earlier games, showing the ability to completely change a game with one touch (ask BGSU). Mathers could easily have another 100+ game rushing and receiving to blow this game wide open.

Prediction: This game has high-scoring written all over it. Both teams have multiple stars on offense and can be exploited in the passing game. The winner will come down to how well MTSU can run the ball versus a stingy WKU run defense. Expect the Blue Raiders to have just enough success in the run game to frustrate WKU.

Middle Tennessee 36, Western Kentucky 31.

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