GAME NOTES: The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders aim for their third win on the road in as many outings when they invade Alfonso Field to take on the FIU Panthers in a Sun Belt Conference showdown.
Middle Tennessee dropped to 3-2 last week as it was plagued by turnovers in its 31-17 loss to the ULM Warhawks. The Blue Raiders had won two straight road games at Memphis (48-30) and Georgia Tech (49-28) before falling to their conference rival. MT is 1-1 in SBC action as it took down Florida Atlantic (31-17) in its league opener.
FIU is having a rebuilding year after last season's trip to the postseason. Coach Mario Cristobal's squad dropped to 1-5 overall and 0-2 in SBC action last week with a 34-20 setback to Arkansas State at home. FIU's only win came at home over Akron, which went 1-11 last season.
This will be just the eighth meeting between these conference foes. Middle Tennessee holds a narrow 4-3 edge in the all-time series despite losing, 31-18, in last season's encounter. MT did win the last time these two squared off in Miami, 28-27 in 2010.
The Blue Raiders were punishing opponents with their rushing attack this season until ULM found the anecdote last week. MT was held to a season-low 74 rushing yards on 19 attempts in last week's loss which led to a season-worst 307 yards of total offense.
Benny Cunningham has been the key to MT's offensive success. The senior was plagued with injuries last season, but he came back stronger than ever. MT rode Cunningham to the upset of Georgia Tech two weeks ago as he produced 217 yards and five touchdowns on 27 carries. He was held to 62 yards on 14 attempts last week, but still managed to score twice to give himself nine touchdowns for the season. With a 13.5 ppg average, Cunningham is the second leading scorer in the FBS.
Drayton Calhoun and Jordan Parker are also featured in the Blue Raiders' attack and are tied for 16th in the SBC in rushing yards per game.
While the team clearly is dedicated to running the ball, it still has an able quarterback in Logan Kilgore. The Blue Raiders' signal caller has thrown for 1,155 yards and eight touchdowns with only three interceptions.
Anthony Amos is leading MT in all receiving categories with 31 catches for 432 yards and four touchdowns. He ranks first in the league and 25th in the FBS in receiving yards per game.
Defensively, the Blue Raiders have been erratic. They gave up a season-worst 500 yards of total offense in last week's loss to ULM.
The FIU offense (24.7 ppg, 364.3 ypg) has been fairly consistent here in the early going, putting up 20 points or more in each of its six games.
Jake Metlock had been solid under center, throwing for 827 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions, but he missed the last two game with an injury and is not expected to be fully recovered by Saturday. If he cannot play again this week, E.J. Hilliard (27-of-37, 215 yards, two TDs, one INT) will start in his place. Hilliard was replaced by Loranzo Hammonds in last week's loss after he failed to get anything going.
Three different Panther rushers have gained 200 yards or more, paced by Jeremiah Harden with 235 yards and one touchdowns. Darian Mallary (51 carries, 209 yards) becomes a big factor in the red zone, rushing in seven touchdowns. Last season's leading rusher Kedrick Rhodes is still in the mix with 225 yards on 47 attempts.
Wayne Times is the team's top receiving target, but averages less than 10 yards per catch (35 receptions, 313 yards). Rhodes is also utilized in the passing game with 10 catches for 130 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
The FIU defense, which was its strength last season, is not the same in 2012. It is allowing 37.8 points and 417.8 yards per game. Louisville is the only opponent FIU has held under 30 points this season.
The unit has five interceptions by five different players. Johnathan Cyprien has a team-best 53 tackles and Tourek Williams has 5.5 tackles for loss.
This game has been close over the past few seasons. Although Middle Tennessee holds an advantage due to its experience at quarterback, it is just a matter of time before FIU's freshmen signal callers start producing. FIU may be able to pull off the upset if it can effectively mimic ULM's blueprint in stopping Middle Tennessee's rushing attack.