If the Middle Tennessee State football team gets it way, history will have to wait.
When the Blue Raiders play in the GoDaddy.com Bowl at 7 p.m. on ESPN Thursday in Mobile, Ala., they will face a very hot Miami University (Ohio) team.
Not only are the Redhawks (9-4) on a five-game winning streak but they are on the cusp of making history. If they win Thursday, they will be the first school in Division I football history to record double-digit victories a year after recording double-digit losses. Miami was just 1-11 in 2009.
While that would make a great story, MTSU (6-6) doesn’t want it to happen on its watch. At the same time, though, the Blue Raiders know it won’t be easy.
“It will definitely be a challenge for us,” said Blue Raiders senior offensive lineman Mark Fisher, who graduated from Goodpasture. “We have to be on our Ps and Qs and get our assignments right. We have to worry about us. We can’t worry about them.”
That has been the theme for MTSU this season — “us.” As it scrambled the last three weeks of the regular season to win three straight games and become bowl eligible, Blue Raiders coach Rick Stockstill said the team focused on what it could do to get better.
At that point, it was about cutting down turnovers. Middle Tennessee turned the bowl over 33 times this fall, which tied for the most in the Football Bowl Subdivision. But in the last three weeks, the team committed just two turnovers.
So the Blue Raiders again will worry about what they can do to give themselves a chance to win. Stockstill said they are not concerned about the game plan of Miami, which features a stingy defense and one of the top receivers in the country, Armand Robinson. He has caught 90 passes for 981 yards and six touchdowns and averages nearly seven catches a game, which ranks in the top 10 nationally.
“They should be playing with a lot of confidence right now. They are on a nice winning streak. They are playing well. They are a good football team,” Stockstill said. “[But] in most games, especially bowl games, it is more about you as a team — not the team you are playing. We just have to prepare ourselves both mentally and physically and go out and play the best game that we are capable of playing.”
Neither team has played a game in nearly five weeks and a lot has happened to Miami since it knocked off Northern Illinois on Dec. 3.
Head coach Mike Haywood left to take the same job at Pittsburgh (he was fired last week after he was arrested on domestic violence charges), and Miami hired Michigan State offensive coordinator Don Treadwell to take his place. Neither Haywood nor Treadwell will be coaching the Redhawks on Thursday. Instead, defensive backs coach Lance Guidry was named the interim head coach and will lead the team.
“I don’t think it will affect us one way or another,” Stockstill said. “Playing 13 games, and being conference champions, they are not going to come in all of a sudden with a new defense or a new offense. They may add a few new wrinkles or what-not, I don’t see it being an advantage or disadvantage for us.”
Leading MTSU is senior quarterback Dwight Dasher. Dasher had a breakout season in 2009, when the Blue Raiders went 10-3, capped by a brilliant performance in a New Orleans Bowl victory. His 201 rushing yards were the most by a quarterback in bowl history.
This season, however, got off to a rocky start for Dasher. He was declared ineligible for the season’s first four games after he accepted a $1,500 loan for a poker game. He then struggled to get into a rhythm on the field, throwing 14 interceptions and just six touchdowns this season.
He has started to show signs of the 2009 Dasher, rushing for 453 yards and seven touchdowns in just eight games. Plus, he has received help from senior running back Phillip Tanner, who is averaging nearly six yards a carry and has rushed for 841 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Defensively, MTSU boasts a big threat with Jamari Lattimore, who was named the Sun Belt Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year. The senior defensive end recorded 11.5 sacks, which was the sixth-most in the nation, along with 64 tackles, including 14 for a loss.
The Blue Raiders rank 14th in the country in both tackles for loss (85) and sacks (33).
This will be MTSU’s second straight bowl game and third in five years. A Blue Raiders win would not only ruin Miami’s storybook turnaround but put a happy ending on a roller coaster season for MTSU.
“To be honest, we can look back on this season and be even prouder because of the adversity we went through, that we had to experience,” said senior safety Jeremy Kellem, who has a team-high 101 tackles. “Now we have an opportunity to win a second bowl game in a row. This season is not as good as the record was last year, but going through the adversity and still being able to reach one of our goals is pretty cool.”