VANDERBILT PASSING OFFENSE VS. MIDDLE TENNESSEE PASSING DEFENSE
EDGE: MIDDLE TENNESSEE
Vanderbilt's passing game struggled last week against South Carolina. The Dores gained just 73 yards passing as Kyle Shurmur connected on 8-of-22 attempts for no touchdowns and thankfully no interceptions. In a very controversial and publicized substitution, backup Wade Freebeck also played and missed on his only pass attempt. Running back Ralph Webb led the team in receptions with three catches for 28 yards. He also had the longest reception of the game with a 24-yard catch. C.J. Duncan had a pair of catches for 24 yards. Kalija Lipscomb and Nathan Marcus each had one coach. Trent Sherfield had a costly pass drop that ended a Vandy drive. Commodore blockers allowed one sack which came on Vandy's final possession.
In the win over Alabama A&M the Blue Raiders limited A&M to just 54 yards passing with 9-of-24 passes completed and one interception. Cornerback Jeremy Cutrer is a second team All-CUSA player who has been named to several award watch lists. Cutrer broke up three passes in the win over A&M. Left defensive end Steven Rhodes is the Blue Raider's most experienced defensive lineman. He started every game last season and finished with 35 tackles including six for losses and 2 1/2 sacks.
VANDERBILT RUSHING OFFENSE VS. MIDDLE TENNESSEE RUSHING DEFENSE
Vandy gained 169 yards on 42 carries for a four yard per carry average. Ralph Webb led the way with 97 yards on 21 carries (4.8 ypc). Khari Blasingame, who played linebacker last year, was very impressive carrying the ball with 68 yards on 15 totes for a 4 1/2 yard per carry average. He had Vandy's longest run of the game, a 13-yard run. Blasingame ran hard and was difficult to tackle. On one play he bounced off an opponent after the player attempted to tackle him. Trent Sherfield had a nine yard run and Wade Freebeck gained seven yards on a carry and had another carry for no gain. No Vanderbilt running backs fumbled during the game. Vandy's offensive line did a solid job blocking for the runners.
Middle held A&M to 92 yards on 27 rushing attempts (3.4 ypc). The Bulldogs actually had some early success running the ball on Middle with a 10-yard run on their first play. They gained a couple first downs on their first drive by mostly running the ball. Linebacker Malik Hawkins, a backup, leads the Blue Raiders in tackles with six. The player Hawkins backs up, Myles Harges, is second on the team in tackles with five. Middle will be starting Jahmal Jones at right defensive end in place of an injured starter. Jones missed last season with an injury. He had two tackles in the Blue Raider win over A&M.
MIDDLE TENNESSEE PASSING OFFENSE VS. VANDERBILT PASSING DEFENSE
MTSU is ranked fifth nationally in total offense (681 ypg) and seventh in passing offense (435 ypg). Sophomore quarterback Brent Stockstill, the son of his head coach, has already compiled over 4,300 yards passing in the first 14 games of his career. Stockstill is difficult to pressure because he gets rid of the ball very quickly after getting the snap. He is a pinpoint accurate passer who is very football savvy due to his upbringing. Five-foot-9 inch Richie James is MTSU's top receiver. He had 108 catches in 2015 and against A&M he had eight catches. Middle's offensive line returned three starters from 2015. That group did not allow a sack against Alabama A&M.
Vanderbilt's defense allowed South Carolina's quarterbacks to complete 16-of-30 passes for 187 yards with no interceptions or touchdowns. Quarterback Perry Orth completed 11-of-19 passes for 152 yards. Freshman backup Brandon McIlwain had five completions on 11 attempts for 35 yards. Orth especially hurt Vandy late in the game. Vanderbilt defenders broke up eight passes during the game with Tre Herndon and Jonathan Wynn each breaking up two passes. The Commodores didn't record an interception, sack or quarterback hurry during the game.
MIDDLE TENNESSEE RUSHING OFFENSE VS. VANDERBILT RUSHING DEFENSE
Middle relies heavily on passing but still manages a respectable national ranking in rushing sitting at 34th (246 ypg). A lot of that may have to do with the class of Rick Stockstill in not trying to run up the score with A&M last week and keeping the ball on the ground. In the opener running back I’Tavius Mathers gained 62 yards and scored a touchdown on a 32-yard run for the Blue Raiders. Mathers sat out last season after transferring from Ole Miss. Senior center Daniel Stephens, who has been named to the Rimington Award Watch List, is the leader on an MTSU offensive line in which all five starters weigh over 300 pounds. Return man Dennis Andrews returned the only A&M kickoff of the game for 24 yards. Ruben Garnett also returns kicks.
Last week Vanderbilt limited South Carolina to just 121 yards on 32 carries (3.8 ypc). Zach Cunningham led the Commodores with 12 tackles including six solos and three for losses. Cunningham is currently second in the SEC in tackles. Outside linebacker Oren Burks recorded six tackles, broke up a pass and forced a fumble.
EDGE: MIDDLE TENNESSEE
Vanderbilt kicker Tommy Openshaw made one of two field-goal attempts against South Carolina. He made his first kick from 36 yards but missed the second kick wide left when kicking against the wind from 45 yards. Reid Nelson started at punter and had two punts for a 25-yard average. He was replaced by Sam Loy after a poor second punt. Loy finished with 40.2 yard per punt average and had a long of 45 yards. His punts had great hang time which limited USC's returns. Vandy's coverage units were sound against the Gamecocks and netted one of the two Commodore turnovers gained via a muffed punt recovered by Zach Cunningham.
Sophomore punter Matt Bonadies had three punts for a 33-yard average in last week's game. Kicker Canon Rooker made 2-of-2 field goals in the win over A&M. Rooker had a long boot of 46 yards. Return man Dennis Andrews returned the only A&M kickoff of the game for 24 yards. Backup running back Ruben Garnett also returns kicks. Middle's star wide receiver, Richie James, had three punt returns for 35 yards against A&M. Last week Middle's coverage teams were fairly sound. The didn't allow any returns on punt coverage but did have one kickoff return go for 27 yards.
Third-year Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason is 7-18 at Vandy. He previously was the defensive coordinator at Stanford and has coached as an assistant in the NFL. Mason took over coordinating of the Commodore defense following the 2014 season and in 2015 Vanderbilt had the most improved defense in the nation (FBS).
Rick Stockstill is in his 11th season at MTSU. He's been named Coach of the Year twice and has led the Blue Raiders to five bowl games. He has a 65-61 record at Middle.
Vanderbilt leads its all-time series with neighboring MTSU 13-3. The Commodores won the first meeting in 1915 51-0 and last year prevailed 17-13 in Murfreesboro. However, Vanderbilt has not defeated the Blue Raiders in Nashville since a 23-13 victory in 1956. Vanderbilt will be looking to avoid a disastrous 0-2 start to the 2016 season while Middle will be aiming for revenge after last season's home loss to the 'Dores.
PREDICTION: Vanderbilt 24, Middle Tennessee 13. This Commodore team is not near as poor as some think. MTSU has some issues at the wide receiver position with injuries. The Blue Raiders looked solid in the opener against a bad FCS team but against a much stronger defense the shuffling of players at WR should cause more havoc with their offense. Look for Vanderbilt to run the ball down their throats, eat up clock and systematically suffocate the Blue Raiders.