Maybe one game was too quick to judge Middle Tennessee State.
And perhaps one can heed the same warning and proceed with caution in evaluation of Saturday’s stunning 49-28 road victory against Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
But since an embarrassing loss to Football Championship Subdivision foe McNeese State in the season opener, the Blue Raiders are obviously a better football team.
It was easy to write MTSU (3-1) off four weeks ago. The Blue Raiders were coming off a 2-10 season and promised changes in 2012. Then they fell short in a 27-21 season-opening loss to the Cowboys, who ran for nearly 300 yards and led by 18 in the second half.
After just one game, MTSU appeared to be a program in decline — far removed from their record-breaking 2009 season.
The Blue Raiders, however, didn’t succumb to outside thinking. Sure, their first two wins were against cellar-dwellers Florida Atlantic and Memphis — MTSU’s only two wins last years — but the confidence boost they provided can’t be overlooked.
A bye week before facing Georgia Tech’s vaunted triple-option offense, obviously aided the Blue Raiders. Coach Rick Stockstill and the defensive coaches preached “playing with your eyes” to stymie the triple threat that had buried the Blue Raiders the last two years. The extra time paid off as the Yellow Jackets gained more than 100 yards less than their average of 352 rushing yards, which ranked third in the country.
After Georgia Tech rumbled down the field for a score on its first possession, MTSU punched right back. A spectacular one-handed grab by Anthony Amos at the back of the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown sparked the Blue Raiders, who never trailed after that.
Former Goodpasture standout Benny Cunningham picked a great day to have a career game. The senior ripped off a 60-yard touchdown to open the second quarter and didn’t slow down. He finished with 217 rushing yards and five touchdowns as MTSU’s offensive line wore down the Yellow Jackets’ offensive front.
The Blue Raiders improved to 3-17 against BCS opponents — all three have come against ACC teams — in seven years under Stockstill. Their last win against a school from a power conference came in 2009 when they knocked off Maryland.
MTSU also started that year 3-1 and reached new heights with its bowl win and a school-record 10 wins.
Of course, one has to be careful about jumping to conclusions with eight regular-season games left.
But for one game there was no questioning the Blue Raiders’ resurgence.
Georgia 51, Tennessee 44: Give the Vols (3-2, 0-2 SEC) and Tyler Bray some credit. They could have rolled over after falling behind 27-10 to the fifth-ranked Bulldogs early in the second quarter. But the defense heckled Aaron Murray, Bray showed some poise in the pocket and the run game was efficient as UT grabbed a brief three-point lead before halftime. The Vols gave chase in the second half but their final three possessions ended in turnovers for another close loss.
Tennessee State 40, Arkansas Pine-Bluff 13: The Tigers overcame their biggest deficit of the season (10 points) and scored 28 unanswered points in the second half to reach 5-0 for the first time since 2001. Telvin Hooks scored twice and sparked the late surge with the first of four straight TSU touchdowns.
Murray State 70, Tennessee Tech 35: The road continued to be unkind to the Golden Eagles (2-3, 0-2 OVC), who were steamrolled in their third straight loss — all outside of Cookeville. The Racers scored six rushing touchdowns, while also scoring on a punt return and interception return.
Eastern Illinois 65, Austin Peay 15: The Governors’ pass defense remained susceptible to the big bomb, giving up five passing touchdowns of more than 50 yards. Austin Peay is off to 0-5 start and, going back to last year, has dropped seven straight, which is the second-longest losing streak in the FCS.
By the numbers
0 – touchdowns by Tech receiver Da’Rick Rogers on Saturday. It marked the first time this season (five games) that the Tennessee transfer hadn’t scored for the Golden Eagles. He still led the team with five catches for 58 yards.
14 – consecutive road losses by Austin Peay. The Governors last won outside of Clarksville when they edged TSU 26-23 on Sept. 18, 2010.
177 – previous wins by Tennessee when scoring more than 40 points. In fact, in the 121-year history of the program, the Volunteers had never lost a game when putting up more than 40.
31,765 – record-setting attendance at TSU’s homecoming at LP Field. It was the largest home crowd in Tiger history — at either Hale Stadium or LP Field — and was the biggest since 28,830 attended TSU’s showdown with Southern on Sept. 6, 2008.
Player of the week: Middle Tennessee State running back Benny Cunningham
A no-brainer this week. Late in the fourth quarter, the former Goodpasture standout had more rushing yards than Georgia Tech has as a team. He finished with a career-high 217 yards on 27 carries and five touchdowns, which matched a school-record for second-most. The 5-foot-10, 212-pounder had been bothered by a shoulder injury earlier in the season, causing him to miss a game. He showed no signs of slowing down against the Yellow Jackets. A career-long 60-yard touchdown run in the second quarter sent the senior on his way to just his second 100-yard rushing performance.
Quote of note:
“I’ve always believed that this team has some fight in them. We just had to go out there and prove it. We got hit by a freight train early in the game, but we were able to fight back and get back into it. We went toe to toe with a top-10 team that will be competing for a national championship.” — Tennessee coach Derek Dooley
What to watch for
TSU gets its biggest test of the season when preseason OVC favorite Eastern Kentucky comes to town. The Colonels are ranked 19th in the FCS and are 4-1 for the first time since 1999 … MTSU also hosts a big conference challenge against contender Louisiana-Monroe. The Warhawks (2-2) enter their first Sun Belt game after blowing out Tulane, an upset over Arkansas and near misses against Auburn and Baylor … There is a high probability of Austin Peay staying winless when Murray State and its high-flying offense arrive … Tech returns home for the first time in a month, seeking its first conference win against Jacksonville State. Austin Peay is the only other team that has failed to win an OVC game this fall.