A lot of season left to go

After a tough 2011 season, Rick Stockstill likely wanted to see an instant turnaround more than anybody else involved with the Blue Raider football program. Unfortunately, his squad dropped the 2012 opener to FCS opponent McNeese State and left fans wondering about the rest of the season.

The one thing that is clear from the home opener is this: Stockstill has a lot of work to do. The same issues that plagued Middle Tennessee in 2011 were all present and accounted for in the 2012 opener.

Inability to stop the run? Check.

Inability to score touchdowns in the redzone? Check.

Inability to win the turnover battle? Check.

It's a tough thing for fans to deal with when they consider all of the changes that were made from last season – especially on defense. After ranking 114th in the nation in rush defense last season, the Blue Raiders went out and got Tyrone Nix to come in and shore up things up. At the time, his Ole Miss team had just finished ranked 112th in the nation in rush defense, but fans were sold on the idea that Houston Nutt's Rebel team had so many problems that you couldn't necessarily blame it on Nix.

As we saw last night, the defense picked up where it left off last season – giving up nearly 300 yards on the ground and a total of 27 points.

As I was watching the game, I kept wondering to myself if the team would be able to make the necessary adjustments at halftime. It wasn't until well into the third quarter that the thought struck me that they've had nine months to work on these issues and still managed to put an eerily similar defense on the field. If it didn't happen during Spring and Fall camp, then it surely wouldn't be fixed over the course of one halftime break.

On offense, the word "vanilla" is a perfect fit. The Blue Raiders started off with a safe approach and stuck with it long after McNeese State showed an ability to stop it. Buster Ball's unveiling of a new vertical run game culminated in 103 rushing yards and an average of 3.8 yards per carry. Middle Tennessee ended up putting up 343 total yards of offense when it was all said and done, but a lot of that game late in the game when the team rallied and made a valiant effort at a comeback.

So if you're Stockstill, how do you recover from this? In eight days, the team returns to Floyd Stadium for the Sun Belt opener. Again it's hard to imagine that if an entire off-season didn't render vast improvements that it would be impossible to do so in a week, but that's one of the benefits of following a team: you can always hope for the best.

And there were positives to be taken from this game.

First of all, true freshman Jordan Parker had about as good a performance as you could hope for from a kid who was in high school this time last year. He led the team in rushing yards and yards per carry. For those who saw the game, they know that Parker's yards didn't come easy either. He fought and muscled his way through Cowboy defenders for good gains. Yes, he dropped a crucial pass at one point in the second half, but he showed a lot of promise out of the backfield.

In addition to that, the return game did everything it could to give Middle Tennessee opportunities to score – and set a school record for return yards in a game as a result.

Speedster Kenneth Gilstrap returned The Opening kick 57 yards and gave the Blue Raiders good enough field position to score their first points of the season on a Carlos Lopez field goal. Late in the fourth quarter, Reggie Whatley followed up on Gilstrap's performance by running a kickoff all the way to the McNeese State 15. The Blue Raiders immediately took advantage of the field position as quarterback Logan Kilgore hit Kyle Griswould for a TD on the very next play.

There were even positives on defense. Redshirt freshman Kevin Byard led the team with 11 tackles in his very first collegiate start. Okay, so there was one positive on defense . . .

So now what? Can the Blue Raiders take those positives and build around them? I'm not sure to be honest, but they have one of their more favorable matchups of the season at home next Saturday against the Owls of Florida Atlantic. The Owls had some major issues of their own last season when they went 1-11, and we'll find out how well they addressed them when they kick off their season later today against Wagner.

It's inevitable that rumblings regarding Stockstill's job security have already begun. Still, he can show his merit as a coach by turning things around one week at a time. If the Blue Raiders can show improvement next week, then the season might not be a total waste. A loss to an FCS opponent is a tough one to stomach, but it has no bearing on the Sun Belt race itself.

If the same issues remain, well then we'll likely have something completely different to talk about for the rest of the season.

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