Reason for optimism?

Five games into the 2011 season, no one expected Middle Tennessee to be looking up at a 1-4 record during the bye week.

Unquestionably, there is no shortage of issues with this year's squad. Missed assignments, turnovers, and even sporadic special teams performance have keyed the worst start since 2007.

There also have been unsubstantiated rumors that the work ethic and attitude among certain key members of the team have created dissention. Whether true or not, it's obvious there are some underlying problems fracturing the makeup of the team as a cohesive unit.

Perhaps most unsettling is this is the second year in a row, the program has struggled out of the gates due to both on and off the field issues. How head coach Rick Stockstill addresses those over the latter half of the season will probably have as much to do with the final record as turnovers and touchdowns.

Even with all of those issues, three of Middle Tennessee's four losses were by a cumulative total of only nine points. A break here and break there and Middle Tennessee could be just as easily looking at a 4-1 record right now as they are 1-4. Sometimes, there really is that fine of a line between a good team and a bad team. Good teams find ways to win those close games.

There is reason to have optimism looking ahead to the second half of the season, and the team doesn't have to completely scrap the blue prints and go back to the drawing board. However, the Blue Raiders will face three of the best teams on their schedule in the second half of the season (including the surprise team of 2011 - Louisiana), so it won't be easy.

Although no one is happy with 1-4, the season isn't completely lost at least not yet. The margin for overcoming the problems that have plagued the team in the first half is not that large so long as every member of the 2011 Blue Raiders unit are ready to pull in the same direction.

Offense
Middle Tennessee's offense is averaging 468 yards and over 30 points per game. The biggest problem afflicting the offense is breaking down in the red zone. Middle Tennessee is only scoring touchdowns at a rate of slightly better than 50% inside the redzone. Play calling is usually credited with the blame particularly inside the five yard line, and while offensive coordinator Willie Simmons could help the offense by opening up the playbook a little more inside the five and 10 yard lines, the biggest problem has been concentration lapses resulting in penalties and missed assignments as well as overall execution. The offense doesn't need to change much, but overcoming injuries to two of the top three running backs on the roster likely means more balls in the air over the next few games. Quarterback Logan Kilgore has been serviceable so far this season and appears to be growing into the position and ready to take the next step as the team's offensive leader.

Defense
It's one thing to bend and not break, but Middle Tennessee's defense has done nothing but break down for much of the season. Simply put the defense is allowing way to many touchdowns. Defensive coordinator Steve Ellis' first season calling the defensive shots isn't going so well, but Ellis is a victim of circumstance right now. Injuries, defections, La Nina, and any other reasons you can come up with to illustrate why Middle Tennessee simply doesn't have legitimate division I size at the defensive tackle position is having a significant impact on both defensive play calling and performance. Middle Tennessee fans are learning just how important defensive tackles are to a team as well as how difficult they are to come by. Middle Tennessee's expected two deep DT's during the summer are either lost for the season or didn't make it to campus. In addition, a key recruit (Joe Townsend) who was projected to provide depth as a true freshman reneged on his commitment on signing day in February leaving Middle Tennessee with no time to find a replacement.

Those holes have hurt Middle Tennessee's ability to stop both the run and the pass. Depth along the defensive front has been compromised and defensive ends with next level potential pass rushing skills find themselves playing between the tackles, overmatched and underweight to disrupt even moderately capable rush offenses. This has also affected the pass rush and left Middle Tennessee's already inexperienced and limited secondary with the prospect of having to cover receivers even longer.

If Ellis is to find a temporary fix for the defensive tackle problem to get this team through the 2011 season, the bye week is the best time to do it, and it may take commandeering a beefy offensive lineman or two for the final seven games of the season – if for no other reasons than to give Middle Tennessee a larger presence in the middle of the defensive front and get Middle Tennessee's defensive ends back to their original position.

Special Teams
Kick coverage hasn't been very good. Kick returning hasn't been very good either. The kick blocking hasn't been there and the kicker is in a funk. Other than that everything is okay.

It may be time to open up the competition for the place kicking duties. Alan Gendreau is an all-conference kicker and he'll probably get his feet under him (pun intended) before the season is out, but a little competition might aide him in getting his focus back. Practice can correct the other special teams issues. Good assumption there has been a lot of work in those areas this week.

Finishing
Certainly, challenges lie ahead, but every team has some adversity to overcome this time of year. Middle Tennessee's is all about getting into the details and doing the little things right in practices as well as during games to turn those three point losses into wins. That's feasible, but the Blue Raiders are going to have to want it. The question is do they want it. Do they want to be the type of things that corrects the small details that so often define the difference between a win or loss, or will they continue to go through the motions and pack it in as the season winds down?

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