What used to be a liability is now a strength for Middle Tennessee State.
On Saturday, the defense validated its surprising turnaround. Behind a season-high five takeaways, the Blue Raiders edged rival Troy 24-21 and snapped a six-game losing streak against the Trojans.
MTSU (8-3, 6-1 Sun Belt) rides a four-game winning streak into this weekend’s regular-season finale at Arkansas State (8-3, 6-1). The winner captures the Sun Belt crown, which would be the Blue Raiders’ first since 2006.
The defense has led this march to the top.
MTSU offered little resistance last year, allowing 36.8 points and 441.1 yards per game. The Blue Raiders also finished in the red in the turnover margin with a minus-7 (28 lost and 21 gained).
First-year defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix, who spent the previous four years at Ole Miss, and his 4-3 scheme have made those days seem like a distant memory.
MTSU leads the conference in turnover margin at plus-12 (28 gained, 16 lost). It has tripled its interception total from a year ago with 12 and counting. And most importantly, opponents are not getting into the end zone as much. The Blue Raiders rank second in the league with 26.5 points allowed.
Midway through the fourth quarter against Troy, MTSU had scored just one touchdown and settled for three field goals. Leading 21-16, the Trojans had the ball inside the Blue Raiders' 35.
Cue Kevin Byard.
The safety jumped a rout, intercepted a pass by Deon Anthony and was off to the races. He sprinted 77 yards to the end zone for the sixth longest return in school history.
It was Byard’s second pick of the game — his team-high fourth of the season — and third takeaway. He also forced a fumble. A two-point conversion put the Blue Raiders up 24-21 with 5:48 to go.
Troy (5-7, 3-5) made one last charge and again got to the MTSU 35. The Blue Raiders again answered the challenge with a stop on fourth-and-11.
It was just the latest improvement for a defense building a new and stronger reputation.
Tennessee 37, Kentucky 17: Thank goodness for Kentucky. In a matchup pitting two teams playing for pride, Tyler Bray threw four touchdowns and the Vols (5-7, 1-7 SEC) avoided going winless season in the SEC for the first time. Interim coach Jim Chaney saw to it that UT didn't lose to again to the Wildcats, who ended a 26-game losing streak to the Vols last year. Both teams are looking for head coaches as Joker Phillips coached his last game for UK (2-10, 0-8).
BY THE NUMBERS
5 – games Vanderbilt scored more than 40 points this year. The last time the Commodores did that was 1915.
34 – touchdowns this season by Tyler Bray. The UT quarterback had four on Saturday and ranks second behind Peyton Manning (36) for most in a season. Bray also finished with 3,612 passing yard, second behind Manning, who had 3,819 in 1997.
98 – yards by MTSU freshman Jordan Parker on a touchdown run, the longest in school and Sun Belt history. He finished with 141 yards and set the school's single-season freshman rushing record with 778 yards and counting.
562 – receiving yards by Tennessee senior Mychal Rivera this season. That's a record for a Vols tight end, surpassing the previous mark of 493 set by Jason Whitten in 2002.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Middle Tennessee State safety Kevin Byard
The redshirt-freshman was a pest against Troy. He had a hand in three of the Trojans’ five turnovers. The biggest was a 77-yard interception return with 5:48 left for the game-winning touchdown. It was his second interception of the game as the Blue Raiders had five takeaways. The 5-foot-11, 220-pounder also forced a fumble and six tackles. He leads the team with four interceptions this season.
QUOTE OF NOTE
“I thought we would be going to a bowl game, but things didn’t go that way this year. We got a win at the end so that’s all that matters.” — Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray