Ball State faces off against Toledo at Scheumann Stadium Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021.

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Turnovers will be front of mind as Toledo battles Middle Tennessee in Bahamas Bowl

Toledo guards the football better than any team in the country, while nobody unearths the pigskin better than Middle Tennessee.

Football protection will be a key component on Friday afternoon when the Rockets (7-5) battle Middle Tennessee (6-6) in the Bahamas Bowl at Nassau, Bahamas.

Toledo leads the nation by committing just six turnovers (two interceptions, four fumbles), while the Blue Raiders have forced a nation-best 31 (16 interceptions, 15 fumbles).

Even while being stingy with the football, the Rockets of the Mid-American Conference had to win three straight games and four of their past five to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2018. The destination was the Bahamas Bowl that time too, with the Rockets falling 35-32 to Florida International.

Toledo averaged 43.2 points over the five-game run with star running back Bryant Koback topping 100 rushing yards in each contest. Koback ranks 11th nationally with 1,274 yards and is exactly 100 yards away from becoming the fourth Toledo player to reach 4,000 career rushing yards.

“We would be crazy after going through the last year and a half and taking anything for granted,” Rockets coach Jason Candle said, referencing the COVID-19 situation. “We aren’t taking this opportunity lightly. We’re going to respect this opportunity with great detail and put our best foot forward and try to win a football game.”

Toledo’s top effort of the season may have come in a loss on Sept. 11. The Rockets were winning late at then-No. 7 Notre Dame before the Fighting Irish scored with 1:09 left to pull out a 32-29 victory.

That close call didn’t spur on the Rockets, who were sitting at a disappointing 4-5 prior to the three-game winning streak to conclude the regular season.

“Three conference losses by a total of eight points, I think when those things happen, you have a couple of choices,” Candle said. “You can fold and go one way or you rally together and go a totally different direction.”

The November push earned Toledo the date with Middle Tennessee, a Conference USA program that has been above .500 just once all season — when it won its opener against FCS program Monmouth.

The Blue Raiders went 4-2 over the second half of the season and qualified for bowl consideration with a 27-17 victory over Florida Atlantic on Nov. 27.

Middle Tennessee also had to throw freshman quarterback Nick Vattiato into the mix after previous starter Chase Cunningham suffered a season-ending leg injury against Southern Miss on Oct. 30.

“This team went through so much adversity throughout the course of the year,” Blue Raiders coach Rick Stockstill said. “We went through four quarterbacks. We never really found a rhythm offensively. Games 3 and 4 after the Virginia Tech game (a 35-14 loss), we had 13 players out those two weeks because of injuries and other health issues.

“It sounds like an excuse. It’s not, it’s a fact. We just played more consistently (in the second half). We had more continuity. I feel like we’re close to breaking loose offensively.”

Middle Tennessee has a standout punt returner in Jaylin Lane, who led the nation with a 16.9 average. He also returned one for a touchdown.

Standout safety Reed Blankenship led the Blue Raiders with 100 tackles and three fumble recoveries and cornerback Quincy Riley had a team-best five interceptions.

Now the defensive task is to try to force the Rockets to cough up the ball or throw an errant pass.

“They’re very efficient offensively,” Stockstill said of Toledo. “It’s a very balanced team.”

Middle Tennessee is playing in its first bowl game since losing 45-13 to Appalachian State in the 2018 New Orleans Bowl.

–Field Level Media

Oct 22, 2021; East Hartford, Connecticut, USA; Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders wide receiver Izaiah Gathings (2) celebrates after scoring against the Connecticut Huskies in the first half at Rentschler Field at Pratt & Whitney Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Middle Tennessee won’t leave C-USA for MAC

Middle Tennessee State has decided to remain in Conference USA after all.

The school was mulling a jump to the Mid-American Conference after C-USA lost eight members to realignment. But with four recent additions to C-USA beginning in 2023, the university located in Murfreesboro, Tenn., has decided to stay put.

“With the addition of four new members, C-USA offers a strong footprint in the South and Southwest, providing opportunities to develop new regional rivalries, while staying connected to traditional opponents that our fans want,” MTSU president Sidney McPhee said in the statement. “Working with our four remaining members, as well as our new partners, Conference USA is poised to rebrand itself as a premier conference in the Group of 5.”

Joining C-USA 2023 will be Jacksonville State, Liberty, New Mexico State and Sam Houston State.

The conference lost Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice, UAB and UTSA to the American Athletic Conference, while Marshall and Southern Miss are joining the Sun Belt.

Conference USA’s Western Kentucky is still reportedly considering moving to the MAC.

–Field Level Media

Sep 11, 2021; Blacksburg, Virginia, USA;  Virginia Tech Hokies quarterback Braxton Burmeister (3) runs the ball against Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders defensive lineman Zaylin Wood (96) during the second quarter at Lane Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ryan Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

Raheem Blackshear’s 2 late TDs lead No. 19 Virginia Tech

Raheem Blackshear rushed for two second-half touchdowns Saturday as No. 19 Virginia Tech broke a close game open and cruised to a 35-14 non-conference decision over Middle Tennessee in Blacksburg, Va.

Blackshear capped drives with 6- and 1-yard runs that gave the Hokies (2-0) a four-touchdown advantage. It capped a stretch that saw Virginia Tech score on its first three possessions of the second half.

The Hokies’ defense also played another strong game. After notching six sacks and three interceptions in last week’s 17-10 win over then-No. 10 North Carolina, they limited the Blue Raiders (1-1) to just 66 yards on 36 rushes and registered three sacks.

Quarterback Braxton Burmeister completed 14 of 24 passes for 142 yards and a touchdown for Virginia Tech. The Hokies finished with 383 total yards, 224 of them on the ground. Blackshear’s 54 yards led a balanced rushing attack.

Middle Tennessee starting quarterback Bailey Hockman was good on 19 of 32 passes for 207 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Backup Chase Cunningham completed 7 of 8 for 76 yards and a score in the final minute.

The Hokies took a 7-0 lead when Burmeister hit Tayvion Robinson on a 6-yard scoring strike with 21 seconds left in the first quarter, finishing a 17-play, 79-yard drive that lasted 7:36.

Connor Blumrick’s 2-yard run with 8:54 remaining in the second quarter upped the margin to 14-0. The Blue Raiders sliced the deficit in half as Hockman found CJ Windham for a 5-yard touchdown at the 5:17 mark.

But Virginia Tech pulled away in the second half as its offense found a rhythm. Jalen Holston ripped off a 29-yard scoring jaunt with 7:55 left in the third quarter, followed by Blackshear’s consecutive touchdowns.

Cunningham’s 6-yard scoring strike to Marquel Tinsley with 30 seconds remaining in the game made the final margin a bit closer.

The Hokies converted 7 of 12 third downs and played a clean game, drawing just three penalties for 26 yards.

–Field Level Media

Nov 7, 2020; Huntington, West Virginia, USA; The Marshall Thundering Herd mascot celebrates during the fourth quarter against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

No. 16 Marshall trounces Middle Tennessee State, 42-14

Freshman quarterback Grant Wells threw for 336 yards and five touchdowns Saturday as No. 16 Marshall pulled away from Middle Tennessee State in the third quarter for a 42-14 Conference USA win at Edwards Stadium in Huntington, W.Va.

Wells completed 25 of 37 passes with no interceptions as the Thundering Herd improved to 7-0 overall and 4-0 in the conference. Marshall outgained the Blue Raiders (2-6, 2-4) 520-303, despite running back Brenden Knox being held to a season-low 70 yards on 16 carries.

Sophomore quarterback Asher O’Hara hit on 29 of 44 passes for 241 yards with a touchdown for Middle Tennessee and also led the team in rushing with 39 yards and a score on 11 carries. But his efforts weren’t enough for the Blue Raiders to solve one of the nation’s top defenses.

Wells gave the Herd an early lead with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Willie Johnson at the 7:18 mark of the first quarter.

O’Hara led a game-tying 73-yard scoring drive early in the second quarter, aided by consecutive Marshall penalties that bailed Middle Tennessee out of third-and-10. O’Hara finished it with a 4-yard touchdown strike to Jarrin Pierce.

However, Marshall struck late in the half with two scores. Two plays after hitting Johnson with a 44-yard pass to the 5, Wells found Hayden Hagler for a 1-yard touchdown with 3:08 remaining. Wells then cashed in on a short field created by a strip-sack, driving the team 47 yards and hitting Corey Gammage with a 17-yard strike 32 seconds before intermission.

The lead increased to 28-7 on Wells’ 28-yard pass to Gammage 3:28 into the third quarter. O’Hara scored on a 2-yard run at the 6:51 mark to get the Blue Raiders within 14 points, but the Herd added a 26-yard touchdown jaunt by Sheldon Evans and Wells’ 23-yard scoring pass to Johnson.

Marshall wore all-black uniforms and the number 75 on its helmets to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the plane crash that killed 75 people on Nov. 14, 1970, on a flight home from a game at East Carolina.

–Field Level Media

Nov 7, 2020; Huntington, West Virginia, USA; Marshall Thundering Herd players celebrate after defeating the Massachusetts Minutemen at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Marshall set to host MTU on anniversary of crash

Nov. 14 will always live in Marshall football infamy.

But on the 50th anniversary of the plane crash that killed 75 people, including nearly the entire roster and coaching staff, the Thundering Herd will try to give their fans a better memory of the day.

Ranked 16th this week, Marshall looks to improve to 7-0 when it hosts Conference USA foe Middle Tennessee on Saturday in Huntington, W. Va. The Thundering Herd, 3-0 in conference play, are coming off a 51-10 rout last week against overmatched Massachusetts.

Minutes after that game ended, Marshall coach Doc Holliday gave his players a quick history lesson on the importance of playing on Nov. 14.

“This is the most important game we play all year,” he said. “It’s not even close. They understand that next Saturday, it’s a game you better prepare harder than you’ve ever prepared. This game means more to our community, fan base and school than any game you’ll play all year.

“When you put that ’75’ on your helmet and put on that black jersey and black pants, you better be ready to go play.”

The Herd have been on point all year, relying on an experienced offensive line and a stout defense to cruise through most of their games. All their wins have been by double figures, although the only one that really moved the needle nationally was a 17-7 verdict Sept. 19 over then-No. 23 Appalachian State.

The Minutemen got the entire Marshall offense thrown at them last week. Brenden Knox ran for 118 yards, the fifth straight game he’s gone over 100. Freshman quarterback Grant Wells hit on 21 of 30 passes for 228 yards and three touchdowns. And the Marshall defense steadied after a rough first quarter, ceding just 190 yards and 12 first downs for the day.

Meanwhile, Middle Tennessee (2-5, 2-3) has been idle since Oct. 24, when it survived Rice 40-34 in double overtime. That game was most notable for the Owls’ decision to play for a 44-yard field goal attempt in the first OT — and then the kick bounced off both uprights and the crossbar (twice) before landing in the end zone: A “quadruple doink.”

Quarterback Asher O’Hara made the Blue Raiders’ flight from Houston a happy one, however, winning the game with a 14-yard touchdown run. O’Hara has been the star of the Middle Tennessee offense this year, throwing for 1,509 yards and 11 scores while rushing for a team-high 476 yards and six touchdowns. He’s been responsible for 17 of the Blue Raiders’ 23 touchdowns.

Middle Tennessee’s game scheduled for last week against Charlotte was postponed because of COVID-19 cases and contact tracing in the 49ers’ program. The teams are aiming to reschedule the game in December.

Blue Raiders coach Rick Stockstill calls the recent circumstances surrounding his team unique.

“We’ve had a good couple of weeks,” he said. “It’s not an advantage, because we didn’t spend any extra time working on Marshall … but it is what it is. You can’t control it.”

Middle Tennessee leads the all-time series 4-3, including a 24-13 decision last year in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

–Field Level Media