HUNTINGTON, W. Va. – After a win over defending Conference USA champion Florida Atlantic in its conference opener, Middle Tennessee could almost put itself in the driver’s seat of the East Division with a win at Marshall on Friday.
The Thundering Herd (3-1, 1-0) and Blue Raiders (2-2, 1-0) were ranked second and third, respectively, in the Preseason C-USA Media Poll, and both have had solid starts to the 2018 campaign, looking every bit of the league contenders most thought they would be.
“It’s going to be a heck of a challenge against a really good football team,” MT head coach Rick Stockstill said.
The game is scheduled for a 6:30 p.m. CT start on Friday night at Marshall’s Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
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It’s been tough sledding historically for Middle Tennessee against Marshall.
The Thundering Herd hold a 5-2 all-time advantage over the Blue Raiders and have won two in a row. The Herd are also 4-0 at home in the series.
If MT wins on Friday, history says it’ll be in a close game. The previous two wins for the blue and white in the series came by two points in 2013 then three in triple overtime in 2015.
Friday’s matchup isn’t the first time these two teams have met on a short week. Marshall traveled to Murfreesboro in 2017 for a Friday night contest on MT’s annual Blackout night.
It was the last game of the season for the Blue Raiders without redshirt senior quarterback Brent Stockstill, who’d missed the previous five with an injury suffered against Syracuse.
Without its veteran signal caller, the same problem reared its ugly head that had plagued Middle Tennessee all season long: turnovers.
An interception returned for a touchdown and fumble at their own 18-yard line on back-to-back possessions in the second quarter doomed the Blue Raiders. After a rushing touchdown by Keion Davis capped the short 18-yard drive after the fumble, the score had gone from 7-3 to 21-3 in less than two minutes of game time.
In the end, the score was 38-10. Marshall won in just about every fashion, sacking MT quarterbacks John Urzua and Kyle Banks six times and holding the Blue Raiders to 53 net yards rushing. The Thundering Herd ran for 198 total yards with four touchdowns, and they didn’t commit a turnover while forcing two.
The loss to the Herd ended a 2-4 six-game stretch without Brent Stockstill for Middle Tennessee. When he returned two weeks later against UTEP after a bye, the Raiders got a win to start a 4-1 close to the season.
Tough place to play
As mentioned in the opening, Middle Tennessee has never won at Marshall in four tries.
The Blue Raiders aren’t the only ones who’ve struggled to win at Joan C. Edwards Stadium; just about every opponent who enters the historic stadium leaves a loser. Since it was built in 1991, the Thundering Herd hold a 156-33 record at home, the fifth best winning percentage (.825) of any FBS team at its current home stadium.
It’s not just the crowd that makes things tough on opponents, though the Herd faithful are known to get rowdy for big games. The campus is even hard to get to, so traveling there is a task in itself.
“It’s hard to get there, for one,” Rick Stockstill said. “Places like that that are hard to get to makes it hard.
“It’s going to be a great crowd. It’s going to be lively and loud … and we’ve got to do a great job of mentally blocking all of that out and not getting caught up in all of that.”
Stockstill vs. Marshall finally
Last season’s loss wasn’t the first time Middle Tennessee had to do battle with the Thundering Herd without Brent Stockstill. He hasn’t played against Marshall since his redshirt freshman year in 2015.
In 2016, the Murfreesboro native was injured in the game before against UTSA. He would go on to miss the next two games before returning in the Hawaii Bowl.
The Blue Raiders will love having their QB back if he plays like he did against the Herd in 2015, when he led the blue and white to a 27-24 triple-overtime win to give Marshall its first loss of the conference season (5-1).
Stockstill finished with 353 yards and three touchdowns in a shootout with Marshall’s Chase Litton, hitting Terry Pettis, Ed Batties and Richie James for scores. Pettis had 126 yards on five catches, while Batties had 88 yards and James had 74, leading the way with eight receptions.
With Brent Stockstill back under center, Middle Tennessee should feel confident with what they can do offensively against a tough Herd defense.
The Blue Raiders also showed against FAU what they have around the southpaw when the offense is healthy.
Senior running back Tavares Thomas played for the first time since the season opener and scored the critical touchdown with 38 seconds left that gave MT a chance at a two-point conversion for the win. He also had a reception for a touchdown on a short toss.
Speedy wide receiver Tavonn Salter also played for the first time since Week 1, catching five balls for 34 yards.
The Raiders will need all of those weapons playing at top form to score against Marshall’s defense, which has been one of the better units in Conference USA so far this season.
Led by senior linebacker Chase Hancock, the Thundering Herd are fifth in C-USA in scoring defense (24.5 points per game) and second in rushing defense (103 yards allowed per game).
“They’re a good defense, they bring a lot of pressure, so we’ll have to have a good plan and execute it just like last week,” Brent Stockstill said.
Slowing down Tyre
Middle Tennessee’s offense isn’t alone in improving its health. The Blue Raider defense is also getting healthier, most notably in the backfield.
Safeties Jovante Moffatt and Reed Blankenship were on the field together for the first time this season against FAU, and corner O.J. Johnson played for the first time in 2018.
Moffatt, a senior, hadn’t been on the field this season while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, and the sophomore Blankenship missed the previous game at Georgia.
The Raider stop squad will need all of them rested and ready to go to stop a high-flying Thundering Herd offense.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Isaiah Green has had a tremendous season so far, ranking second in Marshall history for most passing yards (1,108) in a player’s first four games to go with eight touchdowns. He is also a talented runner.
Green’s success so early in his first season starting has come in large part because of one particular weapon. Senior wide receiver Tyre Brady has established himself as one of the best wideouts in the conference, catching 26 balls for 369 yards and five touchdowns. His 92.2 yards per game are third in the league.
“We just have to follow the game plan and try to rally around our guys, make some big plays on defense,” MT redshirt senior linebacker Darius Harris said.
Middle Tennessee did a good job of limiting FAU’s high-powered offense in the second half, giving up just 125 yards and three points. It’ll have to be good for four quarters against the Herd.
Josh Vardaman is the staff writer for goblueraiders.com. Follow him on Twitter @J_Vardaman and also follow @MTAthletics for more on the Blue Raiders.