HEAD TO HEAD: NAVY VS. MIDDLE TENNESSEE

Navy meets Middle Tennessee on Monday in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl. GoMids.com's Jim Lawler compares the two teams in several critical areas. We also make a prediction on the game's final score.

The Navy Midshipmen (8-4) and Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders (8-4) will meet on Monday, December 30 at Fort Worth, Texas in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces. Navy enters the game following its 34-7 victory over Army. The win extended its record winning streak over Army to twelve games. Navy has won its last four games. The Mids offense has been clicking on all cylinders during the winning streak as they are averaging 44 points per game. Middle Tennessee State is also hot having won five straight contests. The Blue Raiders has averaged 42.6 points during those five wins. This is the second straight year Middle Tennessee State finished with an 8-4 record. This is the first meeting between the two teams.

NAVY PASSING OFFENSE
VS.
MIDDLE TENNESSEE PASSING DEFENSE
EDGE: MIDDLE TENNESSEE
REMARKS: Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds had his streak of throwing at least one touchdown pass in six straight games snapped as he struggled throwing the ball in the snow against Army. This season Reynolds has completed 65 of 121 passes (53.7%) for 1,038 passing yards for eight touchdowns and two interceptions. Wide receiver Casey Bolena leads Navy with a team high 13 catches for 164 yards. Slotback DeBrandon Sanders has 12 receptions for 217 receiving yards and a touchdown. Co-captain Matt Aiken (8 rec.,150 yards, 18.8 YPC, 2 TDs) will miss the game with a knee injury. The Mids have struggled to protect Reynolds at times. Navy has allowed 18 sacks and are ranked 123rd in the nation in pass protection.

The Middle Tennessee State pass defense is ranked 42th in the nation. They are allowing 218 passing yards per game. The secondary is led by physical strong safety Kevin Byard. He has 92 tackles, five interceptions and one forced fumble this year. Opponents are completing 63.4 percent of their passes against the Blue Raiders and have thrown 16 touchdowns. Senior cornerback Kenneth Gilstrap is the best cover cornerback with an interception and seven passes broken up. Middle Tennessee State has returned four interceptions for touchdowns this season. The Blue Raiders use linebacker Leighton Gasque as their pass rush specialist. Gasque has five sacks this year and 16 sacks for his career. Middle Tennessee enters the bowl game ranked 27th nationally in total interceptions with 15. The 15 picks have been by eight different players. The Blue Raiders have 24 interceptions over their last 17 games.

NAVY RUSHING OFFENSE
VS.
MIDDLE TENNESSEE RUSHING DEFENSE
EDGE: NAVY
REMARKS: Middle Tennessee State's one back attack is ranked 25th in the nation in rushing. The Blue Raiders are averaging over 208 rushing yards per game. MTSU has a balanced rushing attack, with four different players averaging at least 50 yards per game. The Raiders have topped 200 yards rushing in five straight games and seven for the season, while going over 300 yards twice. Due to injuries MTSU has to utilize a running back by committee approach with Jordan Parker, Reggie Whatley, Jeremiah Bryson, freshman Shane Tucker and senior Corey Carmichael sharing the ball. Sophomore running back Jordan Parker leads the Middle Tennessee State with a team leading 741 yards on 145 with six rushing touchdowns. Parker has missed two games with a sports hernia and hip issues. He played his best football in over a month in the regular season finale victory against UTEP where he posted 85 yards on seven rushes. Junior Reggie Whatley (631 yards, 6.8 avg., 3 TDs) has a torn labrum in his hip which has limited him to just five carries the last three games. Due to the injuries the MTSU staff removed the redshirt on freshman Shane Tucker (226 yards, 5.7, 5 TDs). He's appeared in the last four games and has started three. Not to be outdone sophomore Jeremiah Bryson (355 yards, 4.9, 3 TDs) is playing with a shoulder injury. Bryson rushed for a career high 120 yards and two touchdowns against UTEP last game. Corey Carmichael (140 yards, 5.4 avg., 2 TDs) has seen all his during the last three games. Quarterback Logan Kilgore is a pocket passer and not much of a running threat. Middle Tennessee State's strong offensive line led by 6-5, 319 pound guard Josh Walker has kept the running game motoring despite the injuries.

Navy's rushing defense held Army, the second ranked rushing team in the nation, to a season low 157 rushing yards last game. Army averaged 3.5 yards per carry and had just one touchdown. The Mids are playing their best defense this season as they have allowed 14 points or less in two of the last three games. They will be tested by MTSU running attack. Navy is ranked 86th against the run. The strength of the Mids run defense is their two active interior senior linebackers Cody Peterson and DJ Sargenti. All-East linebacker Peterson's (5.5 TFL and a sack) 135 tackles are the most by a Navy player since Rob Caldwell had 140 in 2005. Sargenti (103 tackles, 6 TFL, sack, INT) made six tackles against the Black Knights. Chris Johnson (78 tackles, 3 TFL, 3 INT) made seven tackles and recovered a fumble last game as he defeated Army blocks all game.

MIDDLE TENNESSEE PASSING OFFENSE
VS.
NAVY PASSING DEFENSE
EDGE: MIDDLE TENNESSEE
REMARKS: Senior quarterback Logan Kilgore completed 197 of his 322 pass attempts (.612) for 2,289 yards and 16 touchdowns with six interceptions. Kilgore has thrown for 7,631 career passing yards and 53 touchdowns. Middle Tennessee State's short passing game uses three and four receivers. Senior wide receiver Tavarres Jefferson has 41 receptions for 532 yards and five touchdowns. Junior Marcus Henry has 36 catches for 528 yards and three touchdowns. He caught a 93-yard touchdown pass against UAB. Kyle Griswould (36 rec., 359 yards, 4 TDs) has at least one reception in 34 straight games. Middle Tennessee State's offensive line is ranked 27th in pass protection.

Navy is ranked 36th in pass defense after the Army game. They are allowing a very high completion percentage (69.8%) and gave up 23 passing touchdowns. The Mids don't get a lot of pressure on quarterbacks but do a good job of keeping the play in front of them in their bend-but-don't-break scheme. Freshman cornerback Brandon Clements (46 tackles, 3 INT, 4 pass def.) earned post season All-East honors. He had a great game against army with 4 tackles, 2 forced fumbles and an interception. Free safety Parrish Gaines (60 tackles, 3 IN T) has stabilized the secondary since being moved from cornerback after the Toledo game. At the other cornerback Myer Krah (19 tackles, 2 pass def) and Kwazel Bertrand (42 tackles) have mostly split time since Bertrand returned from to the field after suffering a concussion. Navy has recorded just ten sacks this season.

MIDDLE TENNESSEE RUSHING OFFENSE
VS.
NAVY RUSHING DEFENSE
EDGE: MIDDLE TENNESSEE
REMARKS: Middle Tennessee State's one back attack is ranked 25th in the nation in rushing. The Blue Raiders are averaging over 208 rushing yards per game. MTSU has a balanced rushing attack, with four different players averaging at least 50 yards per game. The Raiders have topped 200 yards rushing in five straight games and seven for the season, while going over 300 yards twice. Due to injuries MTSU has to utilize a running back by committee approach with Jordan Parker, Reggie Whatley, Jeremiah Bryson, freshman Shane Tucker and senior Corey Carmichael sharing the ball. Sophomore running back Jordan Parker leads the Middle Tennessee State with a team leading 741 yards on 145 with six rushing touchdowns. Parker has missed two games with a sports hernia and hip issues. He played his best football in over a month in the regular season finale victory against UTEP where he posted 85 yards on seven rushes. Junior Reggie Whatley (631 yards, 6.8 avg., 3 TDs) has a torn labrum in his hip which has limited him to just five carries the last three games. Due to the injuries the MTSU staff removed the redshirt on freshman Shane Tucker (226 yards, 5.7, 5 TDs). He's appeared in the last four games and has started three. Not to be outdone sophomore Jeremiah Bryson (355 yards, 4.9, 3 TDs) is playing with a shoulder injury. Bryson rushed for a career high 120 yards and two touchdowns against UTEP last game. Corey Carmichael (140 yards, 5.4 avg., 2 TDs) has seen all his during the last three games. Quarterback Logan Kilgore is a pocket passer and not much of a running threat. Middle Tennessee State's strong offensive line led by 6-5, 319 pound guard Josh Walker has kept the running game motoring despite the injuries.

Navy's rushing defense held Army, the second ranked rushing team in the nation, to a season low 157 rushing yards last game. Army averaged 3.5 yards per carry and had just one touchdown. The Mids are playing their best defense this season as they have allowed 14 points or less in two of the last three games. They will be tested by MTSU running attack. Navy is ranked 86th against the run. The strength of the Mids run defense is their two active interior senior linebackers Cody Peterson and DJ Sargenti. All-East linebacker Peterson's (5.5 TFL and a sack) 135 tackles are the most by a Navy player since Rob Caldwell had 140 in 2005. Sargenti (103 tackles, 6 TFL, sack, INT) made six tackles against the Black Knights. Chris Johnson (78 tackles, 3 TFL, 3 INT) made seven tackles and recovered a fumble last game as he defeated Army blocks all game.

SPECIAL TEAMS
EDGE: NAVY
REMARKS: Middle Tennessee State kicker Cody Clark has hit 10-of-14 field goal attempts this season with a long of 42 yards. Punter Josh Davis is averaging 41.9 on his punts. He has 16 punts of 50 or more yards this year with 19 downed inside the 20-yard line. Canon Rooker limits kickoff returns with 23 touchbacks. Reggie Whatley leads the kick returners with a 24.7 average but with his injury has been out. Kenneth Gilstrap (20.1 YPR) has been handling the returns lately. Kyle Griswould is a dangerous return man with a punt return touchdown this year while averaging 6.1 per punt return. MSTU coverage teams have been mediocre allowing a punt return for a touchdown and some long kickoff returns.

Navy kicker Nick Sloan has hit 10-of-13 field goals this season. Sloan has missed four extra points. Punter Pablo Beltran has had a tremendous year 42.0 yards per punt on his 38 punts with 12 placed inside the 20-yard line. Marcus Thomas is averaging 22.2 yards per kickoff return and earned All-East honors. Punt returner Shawn Lynch is producing 7.4 yards per punt return. Navy's coverage teams have been outstanding all year.

INTANGIBLES
EDGE: NAVY
REMARKS: Middle Tennessee State is looking for respect. Despite finishing with a 6-2 league record, tying for second in the East Division and defeating the East champion, the Blue Raiders placed just two players on the Conference USA all-conference team. Linebacker T.T. Barber was the only first team selection. Middle Tennessee hasn't played in a bowl since the 2010 GoDaddy.com Bowl. The Blue Raiders went 8-4 in 2012 but were passed over for a bowl berth in favor of a Western Kentucky team that went 7-5 and had lost at home to Middle Tennessee. "I told them to think back to their emotions that they had at this time last year," Stockstill said of his players, "and to understand and appreciate how special going to this bowl is going to be."

Navy is motivated to win a bowl game. For all their success under Ken Niumatalolo he has a 1-4 record in bowl games. The last two appearances they have been outscored 97-42. Navy's only bowl win under Niumatalolo was in 2009 over Missouri. Navy is 21-19-1 (.524) all-time against teams currently in Conference USA.

COACHING
EDGE: NAVY
REMARKS: Rick Stockstill has a 51-48 record in his eight seasons at Middle Tennessee State. He's done a nice job running the program. Stockstill has captured a league title, won the 2009 New Orleans Bowl, made four bowl appearances and engineered back-to-back eight win seasons for first time in 22 years. Ken Niumatalolo has led the Midshipmen to a 48-30 (.615) record in his six seasons as the head coach. He is now ranked third all-time at Navy in career wins. Navy has the fewest penalties per game (2.67) and fewest penalty yards per game (22.00 yds/ gm) in the nation since 2008 when Niumatalolo became the head coach. Navy has never finished lower than second in either category.

PREDICTION: Navy, 38-31. Navy is due for a bowl win. They are healthy and sharp and I believe primed for a big offensive effort. Even with the time off for mid-term exams their last game was December 14 so they will be ready. Middle Tennessee State should move the ball and score but Reynolds has been unstoppable the last month.

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