By: MTN Sports Reporter Austin Caperton
MTSU defeated Southern Miss 35-10 on Saturday. This win marks the second conference victory of the season for the Blue Raiders. The Raiders were aided by their defense and special teams that created three touchdowns on the day.
“We did enough to win, but I thought our defense and our kicking game was outstanding. Defensively, we imposed our will. We intimidated them. We got after them. I’m just really proud of how we played defensively and then in the kicking game. Offensively, we’ve got a long way to go.” said MTSU head coach Rick Stockstill.
MTSU started off slow offensively and turned the ball over twice including an interception thrown by Chase Cunningham while he was being tackled.
After the play, Cunningham needed assistance to get to the sideline and he did not return for the remainder of the game. Early reports are that he sustained an ankle injury and it could be serious.
“Not a whole lot. He’s got to get an MRI either tonight or tomorrow. It doesn’t look good, but you never know until you get in there and put an image on it.” said Stockstill.
MTSU backup quarterback Mike DiLiello came into the game and played well in relief of Cunningham, throwing for 78 yards while rushing for 77 yards and two touchdowns, showing off his ability as a dual-threat.
“You go in every week preparing like you would be the start - at least I do, anyway. It’s tough to see a guy go down, especially one of your good friends on the team, especially a guy in your QB room. But that’s kind of the nature of this game, it’s the ‘next man up’ mentality.” said DiLiello.
Once again, it was Middle Tennessee’s defense that stepped up to get the team going as Jordan Ferguson forced a fumble recovered by MTSU just inside the Southern Miss 30-yard line. DiLiello ran it in to put the Raiders on the board for six.
MTSU’s special teams unit got involved in the scoring as Ralph Mency broke through the line and blocked a punt that was scooped up by Tra Fluellen for another MTSU touchdown.
MTSU ran for 145 yards on the day with the combination of Frank Peasant and Martell Pettaway, along with their leading rusher Mike DiLiello who had a 43-yard breakaway run that set up an MT field goal.
Jarrin Pierce led Middle Tennessee in receiving, gaining 75 yards on three catches, including a 40 yard deep shot from DiLiello in the third quarter.
MTSU continued to dominate the turnover game as they forced two fumbles and picked off three Southern Miss passes including a pick-six to give the Raiders their second defensive touchdown of the day when DQ Thomas picked off Jake Lange and ran it all the way back to make it 35-10.
“We turned them over five times. It’s just disappointing we had four. It shows you how fortunate you are. You turn it over four times, you’re not supposed to win that game all the time. We’ve got to clean that up. We’ve got to value the ball more than we valued it tonight.” said Stockstill.
Southern Miss QB jake Lange was particularly bad for the Golden Eagles, posting a quarterback rating of just 7.0 throwing for just over 160 yards and a touchdown, but also throwing two interceptions and only completing 47% of his passes.
Despite their success today, the Raiders defense did struggle to defend the run in the first half with Southern Miss tailback Frank Gore Jr. picking up 75 yards on the ground. The Raiders used the score to their advantage and Southern Miss was forced to throw the ball in the second half.
DQ Thomas led Middle Tennessee in tackles as he continued to dominate the middle, stuffing run lanes and creating pass rush opportunities, even playing the passing zones as shown by his pick-six.
“It really starts off from the beginning of the game, first and second downs, putting them in long passing range situations. That’s what we were focusing on. We knew they were 1-6 coming in, but we also knew they were a good football team, so we just prepared like we were supposed to.” said Thomas.
Jordan Ferguson who forced the first fumble of the day recorded two and a half sacks on the day, sharing one with MT linebacker Jurriente Davis, and three tackles for loss, dominating his matchup all day long and harassing Jake Lange and Tee Webb in the backfield.
“The pressure the front put on - the guys that made plays, Marley [Cook]’s interception, [Jordan Ferguson]was relentless off the edge, a lot of guys, Zaylin [Wood], those guys really played well. Richard Kinley. Up front, all those guys really played well. “ said Stockstill.
Looking forward, all eyes lie on Chase Cunningham and his status for the remainder of the season. If the ankle injury is as serious as it could be, Mike DiLiello would take over as the starter for the remainder of the season which would certainly change the dynamic of MTSU’s offense.
MTSU heads to WKU next Saturday for a big-time rivalry game against the Hilltoppers. WKU leads all of college football in passing yards per game and is third in offensive touchdowns.
The key matchup will be WKU’s explosive offense against Middle Tennessee’s opportunistic defense. MT has been nothing short of spectacular this year when it comes to creating takeaways and that is going to be a huge factor in their success against WKU.