MTSU, TSU hope calendar change leads to reversal of fortune

Thursday, September 29, 2011 at 11:00pm

September was not kind to the Middle Tennessee State and Tennessee State football teams.

Luckily, October is at hand.

Both teams begin a new month on Saturday looking for wins, which have been hard to come by.

MTSU is 0-3 headed into a 6 p.m. matchup against in-state, non-conference rival Memphis (1-3) in Murfreesboro.

Since winning its season and home opener, Tennessee State (1-3) has dropped three straight. The Tigers return to Ohio Valley Conference action, making the short trip to Clarksville to play Austin Peay (1-2) at 6 p.m.

“I want so badly for this team to experience that success and reach their goals,” MTSU coach Rick Stockstill said. “They practice hard, they play hard, they compete hard, so you want them to see the rewards. ... These guys have always responded, and I have no doubt that they will respond Saturday night in a positive manner.”

The Blue Raiders had victory snatched away twice; losing to Purdue and Sun Belt rival Troy on the road by three points each in games they held second-half leads.

Offensively, MTSU ranks 17th and 23rd in passing and total offense, respectively. Leading the charge is quarterback Logan Kilgore. The sophomore, in his first full season as a starter, is second in the Sun Belt and 19th among FBS passers in passing yards per game (287.3). Last weekend against Troy, he had the best day of his career, throwing for five touchdowns and 415 yards — which is the third-highest total in school history.

He could have another big game as Memphis’ defense ranks 119th (535.7 yards per game) in the FBS.

“He has a swagger now,” offensive lineman Brandon McLeroy said of Kilgore. “He’s got that experience under his belt. He’s not dancing in the pocket. He’s been playing with the first team all summer and all camp. And the stats don’t lie. He’s been great.”

Unfortunately, the defense has struggled.

MTSU ranks 113th out of 120 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision in total defense, allowing an average of 498.3 yards. Two weeks ago in a 49-21 loss against Georgia Tech and its triple-option offense, the Blue Raiders gave up 596 yards.

“I think we have played really, really well, defensively. I really do,” Stockstill said. “We gave up 27 points defensively at Purdue, we gave up 49 to Georgia Tech, but I think people realize how good they are, and how much they score. Troy is going to score in the 30s every game. They are an explosive offense. The thing that we have to get better at is not giving up the explosive plays. That’s what you can’t live with. That is the frustrating part defensively. Georgia Tech takes 19 plays to go 98 yards, but we can’t get off the field. We played good defense. We just couldn’t get a stop.”

Tennessee State can relate.

The Tigers have allowed more than 40 points in their first four games and rank 118th in the Football Championship Subdivision in total defense, allowing 569 yards a game. After winning its season opener and suffering a close loss to Jackson State in the Southern Heritage Classic, TSU has been pushed around in its last two games.

The Tigers gave up 600 passing yards to Murray State in a 58-27 loss, and then were burned on the ground against Air Force for 595 rushing yards. The Falcons set a school-record with 792 yards in a 63-24 win. It was only TSU’s fourth game against an FBS opponent, and the 63 points allowed matched the most the Tigers have ever given up.

“When you play a disciplined football team as Air Force is and they do the same thing over and over again and wait for you to make that mistake, you get burned when you don’t do your job,” TSU coach Rod Reed said. “We have to continue to play well upfront. We went from one extreme to another. ... We are playing a lot of young guys. We played over 20 freshmen or redshirt-freshmen on Saturday. So when you got a young team and things start to go bad for you, they start snowballing.”

Offensively, redshirt-freshman Mike German made his first start at quarterback last weekend, completing 6-of-17 passes for 172 yards and a touchdown. Senior Jeremy Perry, who started the first three games, was 3-of-7 off the bench for 34 yards and an interception. Earlier this week, Reed said he hadn’t decided if he would start German on Saturday.

The Tigers are averaging 202 passing yards and 194 rushing yards — leading to a productive offense, which averages 28 points a game. But in their losses, Reed said, the offense has failed to sustain drives. They went 3-for-15 on third downs against Air Force and punted nine times.

“We need to start fast, be balanced on offense and we have to convert on third downs,” Reed said. “Any time you go three-and-out, it doesn’t bode well for your football team.”

TSU can get right back into OVC title contention with a win over Austin Peay, which is 1-0 in OVC play. It is the first game of the Sgt. York Trophy series. The trophy goes to the winner of the quadrangular series between the four Tennessee schools in the OVC — TSU, Austin Peay, Tennessee Tech and Tennessee-Martin.

“The confidence level is still there,” Reed said. “They understand we are 0-1 in the conference. Every game is for the conference championship now.”