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UConn football opponent preview: Middle Tennessee State

The Huskies will host the Blue Raiders of the C-USA in a game that could be winnable for the home squad.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 19 Troy at Middle Tennessee Photo by Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When Middle Tennessee State visits Rentschler Field on Oct. 22 at 6:00 p.m. the Huskies will have just completed their third quarter of the season with game no. 8 against Yale. It also wraps up a four-game stretch of very winnable football games, starting with Vanderbilt, UMass, then Yale, and ending with this contest against the Blue Raiders.

Considering this UConn team hasn’t played any competitive football in over a year, it’s hard to really gauge how winnable these games truly are. But one thing is for certain: If UConn doesn’t beat MTSU, it will likely have to wait until the 2022 season to pick up another victory, as the last three games are against Clemson, UCF, and Houston.

Fortunately, it seems like Middle Tennessee State is a team UConn can run with. Outside of UMass, MTSU is the lowest-ranked opponent according to ESPN’s SP+ metric on the schedule this season at 115.

Head Coach & Recent History

MTSU is led by Rick Stockstill, who returns to coach the Blue Raiders for a 16th season and is the fifth-longest tenured coach in the country. In his time in Murfreesboro, Stockstill has led MTSU to eight bowl games, winning two, and won a Sun Belt title in 2006 and a Conference USA East Division title in 2018. He’s 94-92 all-time at the program’s helm and was named C-USA Coach of the Year in 2018.

In that 2018 season, Stockstill led MTSU to an 8-6 record that ended with a loss to Appalachian State in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl. Since then, things have been trending a bit in the wrong direction, as the Blue Raiders are 7-14 in the last two years.

2020 Season

MTSU struggled through the 2020 season, posting a 3-6 record with wins against Florida International, Rice, and Troy. The Blue Raiders had three games canceled due to COVID-19, and while they got outscored 89-14 in losses to Army and Troy to start the year, things got a little better as the season progressed. MTSU scored 30 or more points in four of its final seven games. But the offensive production didn’t always translate to wins, as the defense surrendered 30 or more points in all but three games last season.

Even though MTSU’s season wasn't up to its usual standards under Stockstill, the roster still had solid talent. Junior defensive back Gregory Grate was first-team All C-USA while quarterback Asher O’Hara made the second team. Three other Blue Raiders — offensive lineman Robert Jones, wide receiver Jarrin Pierce and long snapper Brody Butler — earned honorable mentions.

2021 Outlook

With MTSU’s offense up-and-down last season, Stockstill brought in Brent Dearmon, who spent a little over a season as the offensive coordinator at Kansas under Les Miles in 2019 and 2020, to take over as offensive coordinator. Dearmon plans to institute a run-pass option (RPO) scheme that should make the Blue Raiders more dynamic. Replacing O’Hara, a great runner in his own right, won’t be easy, but Stockstill will likely pick between Bailey Hockman, a former four-star recruit and NC State transfer, and Chase Cunningham, O’Hara’s backup last season.

No matter the winner of the quarterback battle, the starter will have the luxury of having Pierce return at wide receiver, giving him one of the better pass catchers in the conference. Pierce was named to the C-USA Preseason Watch List this season after a 59-catch, 584-yard season last fall. The addition of transfer running backs Martell Pettaway and Amir Rasul, who opted out of the 2020 season, could also help infuse some new life into Dearmon’s offense.

Defensively, the Blue Raiders will likely have the best pair of safeties in the conference with the return of Grate and Reed Blankenship, another C-USA Preseason Watch List player who was also named to the Bednarik Award Watch List. Blankenship led the team with 76 tackles and played 717 snaps, and should finish his career as the leading tackler in program history. Combined with C-USA Preseason Watch List defensive lineman Jordan Ferguson, the hope is that the trio can apply enough pressure to help the defense bounce back in 2021.

Prediction

There’s a good chance this game looks a lot like the UMass game. The Blue Raiders’ new offense will probably lead to some big plays, but Randy Edsall and the Huskies should be pretty solid against it overall. The duo of Grate and Blankenship could put a damper on UConn’s run game, but this game could be an opportunity for the Huskies’ young and currently unproven receiving group to take a step in the right direction.

Due to it being a home game, there is probably an argument that this game is more winnable than UMass on the road, but it’s splitting hairs. Nonetheless, a win here could not only give the Huskies a possibility of a winning streak but even give UConn a little bit of momentum to contend in the last quarter of the season — their hardest stretch of the year by far. UConn 28, MTSU 24