Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders (3-3, 1-1) at UAB Blazers (3-2, 1-1)
Location: Legion Field, Birmingham, AL
Time: 5:30 PM CT
TV: beIN Sports
Line: MTSU -4, O/U 55
History: MTSU leads series 3-2, has won last two meetings
MTSU is the favorite in this one, but only just barely.
Statistically speaking, MTSU is hard to figure out, for a number of reasons, the first of which is injuries. It’s no debate that the Blue Raiders’ two best offensive players are Richie James and Brent Stockstill, and both have been on the sidelines for a month or more – James with a high ankle sprain, Stockstill with clavicle and sternum issues.
Stockstill cracked his sternum and separated his collarbone in the game against Syracuse, and that’s a lengthy recovery time for a quarterback. You’ve got an area of the body that gets stressed every time you throw, so it needs to be as near 100% as possible before you return if you plan to have a career in football. Don’t be entirely surprised if he doesn’t make it back this season, let alone this game.
James could be back, as last week saw him run some drills and do some pregame warmups and now he’s had another week of healing. He’s probably a game-time decision, but I’m sure MTSU fans are hoping he’s a go, for obvious reasons.
Without James, the receiving corps is without a reliable threat to take the top off the defense and can’t consistently produce big plays, though they do still happen from time to time. John Urzua has been starting instead of Stockstill and while he’s not as bad as he appeared to be against Minnesota, he’s not consistently able to be the driving force of this offense.
Some would argue that Stockstill is, to some extent, a system quarterback. Even if that’s true, he still runs that system more effectively than Urzua does on a play-to-play basis. Middle Tennessee without both James and Stockstill is a mediocre team that will need a smidge of extra breaks to go bowling. With James back, they become a bit above average, and with both back (if that happens) they become a substantial foe again.
The UAB Blazers have had a mix of good and bad fortune this season in conference play, as they dug just big enough a hole against North Texas that they couldn’t quite climb out, and did just enough against Louisiana Tech that they were able to hold on for an unexpected homecoming win.
Spencer Brown has been a revelation in the backfield and may wind up with 1,000 yards or more in his freshman season. Combined with a deep stable including James Noble, Carlos Stephens and yes, quarterback AJ Erdely, the Blazers are a borderline top-50 rushing offense per advanced statistics.
The passing game has yet to truly get untracked, but it’s not incapable. Andre Wilson and Collin Lisa are both on pace for 40+ catches and have a chance to flirt with 1,000 receiving yards, though there hasn’t been as much success with guys like Sedarian Copeland, Ronnie Turner or Xavier Ubosi of late.
How the Blazers win
Middle Tennessee State is not a running team, which has been an issue for them when their most dynamic QB and WR have been out. In their three losses, the Raiders have a total of 162 rushing yards, compared with averaging 171 rushing yards in their three wins. On the defensive side of the ball, they have a similarly lopsided situation, where all three teams that have beaten them have run the ball well, including two that have gone over 200 yards.
Realistically, FAU gave the Blazers the blueprint they need a couple weeks ago. The Owls won the turnover battle (+3), were generally more efficient than MTSU on offense, but especially when running the ball and on standard downs (you get the idea here). UAB follows a similar pattern, wanting to run the ball and not turn it over in order to wear you down and get you playing mistake-prone football
How the Blazers lose
It’s been a similar recipe in both losses. Against Ball State and North Texas, the Blazers got down by multiple scores at some point by turning the ball over twice and giving up too many big plays (three touchdowns of 40+ yards plus four more plays of 20+ yards), and gave up a big special teams return right as they were starting to build momentum in their comeback.
The Blazers are finally healthy again on the defensive line, which should make a big difference in that big play prevention, and will be especially crucial if Richie James plays. They’ve got themselves a feature back now but no less depth in the running game, and now get to face a defense that is susceptible to just such an attack.
I think Stacy Keely is the key here. His return normalizes the defensive line rotation and thus it’s success, and against an offense that will be a bit more vanilla with Urzua under center whether James plays or not they can have enough success to make the difference.
If Richie James plays: 41-38 UAB
If Richie James doesn’t play: 41-21 UAB