FOOTBALL: Positional Match up vs. MTSU

And we thought this election season was a vote for Bush or Kerry. Ron Zook is feeling the pressure. It was extremely noticeable in each of the interviews he performed this week. The team has to make a decision…do you get together for a few private meetings and rally behind Zook or do you let the opportunity pass? You'll know what they decided to do when this one kicks off in "The Swamp" at high noon.

MTSU offensive line vs Florida defensive front

The Middle Tennessee State offense is averaging 421.6 yards per game against opponents that have compiled a dazzling 12-16 record. Four of those wins were courtesy of Florida Atlantic's unbeaten 4-0 record. Yeah, the other four have a combined 8-16 record. Ouch. What's worse is that the Blue Raiders have a 2-2 record against those four, with a loss against FAU as well.

Opponents have racked up 15 sacks against a young and inexperienced offensive line. Florida Atlantic sacked him six times. The Blue Raiders have only two offensive linemen who started games last season at the school. Only one of those guys started more than half of those contests. You need not ask about depth either, it probably resides in the 2005 recruiting class.

Sophomore Marcus Gates moved from defensive tackle to center this past spring. The LaGrange (Georgia) High School graduate had yet to see much action redshirting his first year and playing sparingly in 2003. Gates (6'2 275) was given the coaches award for his play against Akron. Lining up on the right side of center is senior Joe Evilsizer. Great name for one of the big uglies. Unfortunately, Evilsizer (6'1 290) has not made a tremendous impact since transferring to MTSU from NE Oklahoma A&M Junior College. He played just two snaps in 2003 and has been inconsistent this season. Quinton Staton lines up at left guard and is generally considered the Blue Raiders best overall offensive lineman. The 6'2 282 junior transferred from East Tennessee State University, where he started all 12 games in 2003. Staton led the team in knockdowns in three of the Blue Raiders five games to date.

Left tackle Willie Hall (6'6 302) has improved over the past three games. The sophomore started six games last season as a redshirt freshman. He has graded out with the overall highest percentage this season. Right tackle Germayle Franklin is the most experienced lineman with 10 starts in 2003. The 6'4 312 Ware County (Georgia) native graded out at 79% throughout the year. McCollum feels as though the running backs have done a good job of blocking for quarterback Clint Marks as well.

The Florida defensive front did a pretty good job against LSU through the first two and a half quarters. The Tigers ran 27 plays to the Gators 13 in the fourth quarter. This after the Tigers controlled the ball for 29 plays (the Gators ran 12) in the first quarter. These guys can't allow teams to eat up the clock on them. They simply don't have the depth. Going against a Blue Raider squad that has little to no experience returning along the offensive front will be a big plus for the Orange & Blue.

Analysis: Coach Andy McCollum was pleased with his offensive line's performance against Arkansas State last weekend. This group is young, has little experience at this level, and considering they've given up 15 sacks, need additional reps before they get a handle on playing as a unit. I just don't think they're a very good group. They may well be in the future, but the present doesn't bode well when 90,000+ in "The Swamp" rev up the Orange and Blue and they can't hear a thing. The Florida defensive front played pretty well against LSU for the first two and a half quarters before they tired. The Tigers controlled the time of possession and a struggling Florida offense couldn't help bail them out. If this Florida team has heart, they'll blast the Blue Raider O-Line.

BIG EDGE: Florida

MTSU skills positions vs Florida secondary

Despite settling in as his first season as a starter, quarterback Clint Marks leads the nation in completion percentage at 77.4%. The 6'2 187 sophomore southpaw has completed 137 of 177 for 1,519 yards and seven touchdowns. He has thrown six interceptions though. To illustrate how special this guy appears to be, consider the Florida Atlantic game. Marks starts the game and throws an interception on the very first play. He comes back to complete 27 of 37 for 359 yards and a touchdown while getting picked two more times and sacked twice. He's a competitor. And he apparently has improved since that September 18th contest. Blue Raider head coach Andy McCollum alluded in his Monday press conference that Marks needs additional work in his decision making. Sure, Marks was only 30 of 34 for 447 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions last weekend.

Marks is kicking ass, and it has nothing to do with his black belt in Tae Kwan Do. This should be a very special game for him as he played high school ball in Florida with Gators offensive tackle Randy Hand. Obviously, Marks has played well. Hand, in my opinion has to be considered for All-SEC honors. Maybe Zook should be recruiting Estero High School harder?

Tailback Eugene Gross (5'9 212) has been the workhorse in the Blue Raider backfield. He has run for 267 yards on 66 carries, a 4.0 yard per carry average. His six touchdowns triple the production of their reserves. The sophomore is also the Blue Raiders fourth leading receiver with 16 receptions for 160 yards. Gross is pretty sound blocker. Junior Lee Baker is listed as a reserve wide receiver, but has totaled 25 carries for 81 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

The Blue Raider offensive staff has been very pleased with the ability of the receivers to run after the catch. These guys are not the lanky group that the gators have faced against Kentucky or Arkansas. The MTSU receivers are more of the waterbug variety. Short guys with great quickness, good speed, and strength to break away from a defender who fails to wrap them up. As is the case every game, the Gators will have to tackle well.

X wide receiver Kerry Wright (5'9 176) is on the Biletnikoff Watch List, and for good reason. The East Point, Georgia senior is 4th in the nation in receptions per game (8.2) and 7th nationally in receiving yardage with 110.6. Wright has hauled in 41 passes for 553 yards and five touchdowns. Wright caught three touchdown passes last weekend. He is a quick player with good speed. In the past, MTSU had given him the ball in reverse situations, Thus far, he has only one carry in 2004.

Y receiver Chris Henry is the teams' second leading receiver. The 5'8 170 junior has hauled in 33 receptions for 330 yards, but has yet to score a touchdown. He also has four carries for 25 yards rushing. Manning the Z post is former Naples High School star Cleannord Saintil. The junior college transfer (5'11 185) has quickly established himself in the offense with 23 receptions for 235 yards and a score. The Blue Raiders do Have one receiver on the roster who doesn't fit the mold, 6'4 212 sophomore Pierre Ingram of Stockbridge, Georgia. The former Georgia state high jump champion (6'10) has only two receptions, but averages 25.5 yards per reception and has a scored a touchdown.

The Gators are seemingly enjoying recent success taking the football away. They have put themselves in position to do so in recent weeks, but failed to make the play. They will have plenty of opportunities this weekend, and at the same time prove themselves against a quarterback who has been consistently accurate.

Analysis: Marks threw three of his six interceptions against Florida Atlantic. A group that have a few athletes with speed on their defense. It's hard to imagine that Mark's won't make a mistake facing the noise in "The Swamp" not, to mention a quick group of corners. The Gators have made inexperienced, and average quarterbacks (Erik Ainge/JaMarcus Russell) look like Heisman Trophy contenders, while making experienced, competent quarterbacks (Shane Boyd/Matt Jones) look beatable. Marks and MTSU will have some success, but it appears that the Florida secondary is starting to grow up a little and make plays. If the defensive braintrust demonstrate a little confidence in playing man this could be a fun matchup.

EDGE: Even

MTSU defensive front vs Florida offensive line

Opponents are averaging 139.4 yards per game on the ground against Middle Tennessee State. The Blue Raiders are also giving up 430 yards of total offense per game, which gives you a pretty good idea that quarterbacks have some time to find receivers. The defense has recorded 11 sacks on the season, but eight of those came in their two wins.

Defensive tackle Thomas Johnson is a soft spoken guy who took it upon himself to turn one coach's motivational tool into a Blue Raider defensive tradition. Johnson carries a large sledge hammer with the inscription "Think Big" to practice every day. Former defensive line coach Carey Bailey left it in the strength coaches' office. Johnson is Blue Raiders big play performer. He leads the team with 6.5 tackles for loss and sacks with three. Nose guard Jeff Littlejohn (6'2 318) is a powerful plug who has tremendous potential, but has not progressed as expected. Littlejohn signed with Miami out of Gaffney (South Carolina) High School in 2001, but failed to meet the NCAA academic requirements and opted to enroll at MTSU instead of a JUCO program. He has 10 tackles on the season. Littlejohn did not play last weekend.

The ends are manned by junior Devarick Scandrick (6'4 262) and redshirt freshman Sean Mosley (6'3 250). Scandrick has 13 tackles, including a tackle for loss and a sack. He started four games last season. Mosley is a former Savannah Morning News defensive player of the year in 2002. The Screven native has 18 tackles, a forced fumble, and a blocked kick.

The Blue Raiders have a couple of experienced linebackers, which will help against a team of Florida's caliber. Alvin Fite (6'0 230) plays the MIKE. The Nashville senior leads the team in tackles with 34. He also has 4.5 tackles for loss, a pair of pass breakups, and has recovered a pair of fumbles. Fite has good speed and runs pretty well laterally. He was the Tennessee Defensive Player of the Year at Hillsboro High School in 2000. Junior Dennis Burke will man the SAM. Burke, 6'1 236, has recorded 24 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, and a sack. He is in his second year as a starter at MTSU. Sophomore Marcel Horne will line up at WILL. In his first season as a starter, the 6'1 218 Georgia native has played very well. He has outstanding athleticism and is the Blue Raiders second leading tackler with 33.

Florida did a pretty good job in pass protection for Chris Leak against LSU. They were not as consistent run blocking for Fason and Wynn. The defense needed the unit to continue the drives and get the defense a longer blow on the sideline. But, that wasn't all the fault of the line. Leak was not at his best. This will be a much easier experience.

Analysis: The Blue Raiders have not faced a group this big and fast. Two first year players (Littlejohn and Mosley) have never been in an environment like this. It just doesn't add up as a good day for the Blue Raiders. MTSU will have the challenge of trying to get through a cranky Florida offensive front that will be poised to prove that they too can drive the ball downfield and pound the opponent. Wickline will probably be a bit more intense about seeing some knockdowns this Saturday.

BIG EDGE: Florida

MTSU secondary vs Florida skills positions

There is a lot of inexperience in Murfreesboro these days. The Blue Raiders feature a secondary that features a pair of starting freshmen cornerbacks coached by a first year cornerback coach Kent Laster. The safeties have one start among them last season. The MTSU safeties coach, Mark Criner, is also in his first year at the school. The duo accounted for three interceptions

Bradley Robinson is a redshirt freshman with tremendous strength and good speed. He leads the team with two interceptions. Robinson (5'10 171) has 18 tackles. The Duncan, South Carolina native is the brother of former Georgia player Durrell Robinson. Starting opposite Robinson is true freshman Damon Nickson, a 6'0 180 product of Milton High School in the panhandle. Nickson has totaled 13 tackle and has picked off one pass. Nickson was the District I Most Valuable Player as voted by the Florida Coaches Association last season.

Strong safety Jonathan Harris (5'10 201) has been quite active this season. The sophomore is currently third on the team in tackles with 27. The Montgomery Jeff Davis High School graduate also has three tackles for loss and a sack. Junior free safety Kevin Copeland (5'10 196) started a game last season. He has tallied 21 tackles in 2004.

Florida quarterback Chris Leak has not been the model of consistency in '04. On versus Tennessee, off versus Kentucky, on again versus Arkansas, and off again versus LSU. So, he should be on again this Saturday if the pattern holds true. Leak misfired Saturday night, throwing behind receivers early, when the Gators needed to set the tone, and missed OJ Small later, who was the only resident in the zip code.

However, Leak should rebound, and playing against a core secondary with one start among them in 2003 should have him salivating. Toss in the fact that these guys haven't played a team better than FAU, and that should spell doom for the Blue Raiders.

Analysis: The young MTSU corners have had difficulty early in games before the defensive staff worked with them to make adjustments. The Florida offense failed to help secure a victory last week against LSU. Only one sustained drive the entire game left a tired defense with little depth on the field far too long. This has to improve or victories over the likes of Georgia, SC, and Florida State will be made even more difficult. Can there be a better time to work on the various aspects of your game, including consistency, than facing the MTSU and Mississippi State secondaries back-to-back?

55 Gallon Drum Full of EDGE: Florida

MTSU coaching staff vs Florida coaching staff

This will mark the first time since the Eastern Michigan game that head coach Ron Zook and company will take the coaching crown. I'd have odds on him in a battle on Frat Row too.

EDGE: Florida

Intangibles & Environment

Zook is feeling the pressure. It was extremely noticeable in each of the interviews he performed this week. The team has to make a decision…do you get together for a few private meetings and rally behind the head ball coach or do you let the opportunity pass?

If the Gators rally behind Zook…this bunch will murder the Blue Raiders. If they are undecided it will probably more closely resemble a combo platter of the Eastern Michigan, Kentucky, and LSU games.

Either way "The Swamp" crowd will remain the same as thye have for dozens of early kickoffs. Slow to start, but excited if the Gators provide the entertainment. They won't tolerate any lackluster play. Boos will be plenty if they play below expectations…whatever those may be?

BIG EDGE: Florida

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