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Last-minute TD and missed FG doom MTSU in 23-20 season-ending defeat to Sam Houston

By MTN Reporter: Dixon Riggins

The Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders football team wrapped up the 2023 season with a crushing 23-20 defeat to Sam Houston. The loss gave the Bearkats their first-ever Conference-USA home victory and their second conference win overall.

Nicholas Vattiato once again produced most of the offense for the Blue Raiders, going 29/37 for 241 passing yards and three costly interceptions. Running back Frank Peasant led MTSU in rushing, however, he only carried the ball nine times for 29 yards. Senior wide receiver Zack Dobson caught five passes for 98 yards in his final collegiate game.

“Obviously the turnovers hurt us there,” head coach Rick Stockstill said on the three Vattiato interceptions. Vattiato took ownership of the loss, saying, “It starts with our inefficiency on offense and that starts with me turning the ball over three times, one leading to a touchdown, that’s not how you win games.”

The first four drives all resulted in scores for both teams. MTSU took the opening kickoff and marched down the field in 10 plays ending with a three-yard score from Peasant. Sam Houston answered back with a 13-play drive that resulted in a field goal. The ensuing two drives each resulted in field goals as well, putting the score at 10-6 in favor of the Blue Raiders early in the second quarter.

After back-to-back three-and-outs, Vattiato threw his first interception of the game to Bearkat defensive lineman Akeem Smith off of a deflection. Sam Houston chased in the takeaway with a 26-yard field goal from kicker Colby Sessums to put the score at 10-9 at halftime.

To open the third quarter, Marvae Myers followed up his two-takeaway performance against UTEP with another interception to set up MTSU’s offense in Sam Houston’s red zone. The Blue Raiders couldn’t make the most of this opportunity and only got a field goal out of it. On the next offensive possession for the Blue Raiders, Vattiato threw his second interception of the day to linebacker Trevor Williams who ran 31 yards to the endzone for the score, giving the Bearkats its first lead 16-13.

The score held for much of the fourth quarter until MTSU backup quarterback D.J. Riles plunged into the endzone from five yards out to give the Blue Raiders the lead 20-16. The Bearkats answered right back, as quarterback Keegan Shoemaker methodically marched them down the field leading to a three-yard go-ahead touchdown run by running back John Gentry.

MTSU tried to tie the game with a last-minute drive that put them in field goal range, but Zeke Rankin’s 47-yard goal sailed wide right. As the teams met at midfield after the game, MTSU’s Jordan Sterling shoved Sam Houston’s Elias Escobar resulting in several players pushing and shoving each other until a large scrum broke out at midfield.

“I don’t know what happened there, it’s embarrassing.” Coach Stockstill said on the postgame brawl. “You know, it’s an emotional game back and forth but it’s embarrassing and I’m disappointed in how we responded to it.”

On the team’s second half performance, Stockstill said, “We played good defensively in the second half up until that last drive when we couldn't get off the field.” “And then offensively we couldn't do anything until the last two drives, we got a touchdown and put ourselves in position to get a field goal and just didn’t get it done.”

Keegan Shoemaker completed 31 of his 48 pass attempts for 198 yards and an interception in his final game for the Bearkats. Former quarterback turned wide receiver Simeon Evans caught 11 passes for 100 yards, both career highs. The victory gives the Bearkats (3-9, 2-6 C-USA) their third of the year as they complete their first season in Division I FBS.

MTSU’s season ends at 4-8 (3-5 C-USA) and will not qualify for a bowl game. This season is the first since 2020 where the Blue Raiders failed to make a bowl game and the eighth time such has happened in Stockstill’s tenure.


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