The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders and the Western Michigan Broncos have a lot to live up to. We can only hope that this year’s edition of the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl is remotely as entertaining as last year’s game between Western Kentucky and Central Michigan.
The Hilltoppers prevailed over the Chippewas last December, but only after Central Michigan roared back from a 49-14 third quarter deficit and had its game-winning, two-point conversion attempt batted down — and that was only after a 75-yard Hail Mary (with three laterals thrown in for good measure) touchdown play as time expired. Chippewas quarterback Cooper Rush threw for a bowl-record seven touchdown passes in that game, a feat that very well could be contested this year when two very impressive quarterbacks and high-scoring offenses take the field at Thomas A. Robinson National Stadium in Nassau on Christmas Eve.
Middle Tennessee vs. Western Michigan (Nassau, Bahamas)
Kickoff: 12 p.m. ET (Thursday)
Spread: Western Michigan -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Young Gunslingers
Both Middle Tennessee and Western Michigan have quarterbacks that can sling the ball all around the field efficiently and with very similar numbers. With multiple weapons at their disposal, both teams are capable of putting up points in a hurry.
Western Michigan’s Zach Terrell sits third in the MAC in passing yards (3,225) but quite possibly has the best wide receiver duo in the country in Daniel Braverman and Corey Davis. The Broncos’ top two targets each have more than 1,200 yards receiving on the season. WMU has a very well-balanced offensive attack that includes MAC Freshman of the Year Jamauri Bogan and a couple of other capable running backs.
Middle Tennessee’s offense goes as quarterback Brent Stockstill goes, and the lefty can toss the leather around the yard. A redshirt freshman, Stockstill is only 380 yards away from surpassing Jameis Winston’s single-season passing record for freshmen. With an assortment of weapons that include fellow freshman and game-breaker Richie James as well as senior Ed Batties, Stockstill has a fantastic opportunity to surpass the mark set by the former Heisman winner against a Broncos defense that is susceptible to giving up the big play.
2. Bend, Don’t Break D
Don’t turn on the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl thinking you’re going to be watching two defensive stalwarts — this is going to be a shootout. The Broncos’ defense ranks ninth in the MAC in yards allowed per game and passing defense efficiency. This combination could lead to a long afternoon for the Western Michigan secondary and a linebacker corps that is inexperienced and marred by injury against one of the country’s best young quarterbacks in Stockstill.
The Blue Raider defense improved over the last three weeks of the season, granted those wins were against teams that had a combined seven victories on the year. MTSU struggles more against well-rounded passers than stopping the run, so Terrell could have a big day through the air. One advantage that the Blue Raiders have on defense over Western Michigan is their two senior playmakers in linebacker T.T. Barber and safety Kevin Byard, both of whom could be playing in the NFL next year.
WMU is second in the nation in terms of time of possession, a testament to its balanced offensive attack and top-end running game. So, the Blue Raiders’ best bet to beat the favored Broncos is to come up with third down stops and force turnovers.
3. How Many Points?
Both teams can put up points in bunches. Typically, Middle Tennessee is a pass-first team, while Western Michigan has a variety of ways to move the ball and score. Running back Jarvion Franklin, last season’s MAC Offensive Player of the Year, has seen his numbers and production dip over the course of the past several weeks due to fumble issues and the emergence of fellow backs Bogan and LeVante Bellamy. The Broncos are afraid to pound the ball on the ground and work the game clock in order to wear an opposing defense down. This could be head coach P.J. Fleck’s greatest advantage to keeping the quick-strike Blue Raider offense at bay — keep them off the field. However, the Broncos’ offense is arguably one of the most balanced in the country and can score through the air just as well as on the ground.
Middle Tennessee’s is much more on-dimensional. Earlier in the season, the Blue Raiders tried to be a running team, but injuries and inconsistent play in the backfield gave head coach Rick Stockstill little option but to turn loose his young quarterback — and it’s paid off. MTSU’s offense is now built around the pass and getting playmakers in space. James will be used on screen plays and jet sweeps to utilize his explosiveness while Batties is more of a traditional possession receiver. The tandem’s ability to keep defenses guessing has worked extremely well all season long. The key for Brent Stockstill is getting others involved in the offense, something he has shown a knack for doing at times.
This game could go in either team’s favor. I think the biggest key will be protecting the ball and controlling the clock. Western Michigan likes to keep the ball on the ground to maintain possession while Middle Tennessee uses screen passes and short routes as a de-facto running game, but has quick-strike ability. Whichever team wins the turnover battle, wins in the Bahamas.
Prediction: Middle Tennessee 34, Western Michigan 31
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.
(Brent Stockstill photo by Brent Beerends, Middle Tennessee Athletic Communications)