Having a point differential of zero through three weeks didn't appear too likely for Middle Tennessee after a 35-point Week 1 win, but that's where the Blue Raiders find themselves as they hit the road for the third straight week to take on the Charlotte 49ers in a Conference USA divisional game on Friday night.
While the Blue Raiders (1-2, 0-1 CUSA) have dropped their last two games by 21 and 14 points to Virginia Tech and UTSA, respectively, Charlotte (2-1, 0-0) opened with a pair of wins, including a season-opening three-point home victory against Duke. Last Saturday saw the 49ers fall in Atlanta to Georgia State from the Sun Belt, 20-9, so Charlotte will look to get back to its winning ways against Middle Tennessee in a key East Division matchup.
These two teams did not meet last season because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Blue Raiders have won four of the five meetings with the 49ers, although Charlotte's only win came in the most recent matchup, a 34-20 home victory in 2019.
Middle Tennessee at Charlotte
Kickoff: Friday, Sept. 24 at 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Charlotte -3
When Middle Tennessee Has the Ball
A 50-point showing in the season opener looked to be the start of a positive outlook for the Blue Raiders, but the trend has quickly changed course. After a 29-point second half against FCS Monmouth, Middle Tennessee has scored just 27 total points over the last two weeks. To make matters worse, quarterback Bailey Hockman — who is married with his first child on the way — announced that he has decided to step away from football to focus on his family and upcoming graduation.
That sets the table for Chase Cunningham to make his first start of 2021, on the heels of the redshirt junior coming off the bench last week at UTSA and throwing for two touchdowns against the Roadrunners. The Blue Raiders will need everything that Cunningham can give them, as they've rushed for a Conference USA-worst 57 yards per game thus far, which is the fourth-worst production in FBS. That lack of a ground game leaves Middle Tennessee as one of just 13 FBS teams to average fewer than 300 total yards per game, though the Blue Raiders' nine offensive touchdowns in 2021 are tied for the most among that group.
Something will have to give when it comes to the Blue Raiders' meager rushing attack, as the 49ers have surrendered the third-most yards per game on the ground (271.3 ypg), with only Rice (272) and Northern Illinois (278.3) allowing more. Despite their struggles stopping the run, though, the 49ers kept both FCS Gardner-Webb and Georgia State to four combined touchdowns. That's why Charlotte's defense is in the top 50 nationally in points per game (19.3 ppg). So despite giving up so much ground, the 49ers have limited the damage on the scoreboard thanks to being opportunistic (more on that later) and clamping down in the red zone. Opponents have scored just three times in six trips inside the 20-yard-line. Charlotte also is giving up 139 passing yards per game, which ranks second in the conference to WKU and 10th overall. Although some of that can be attributed to yielding so many rushing yards.
When Charlotte Has the Ball
While the 49ers' passing defense may be on par statistically with WKU, their aerial offense is lightyears behind that of the conference-leading Hilltoppers. Charlotte enters this game averaging 217 passing yards per game, less than half of WKU's 456 per contest. Quarterback Chris Reynolds has completed 56 percent of his passes through three games, but he's had just two touchdown passes in the past two games after throwing three in the opener against Duke.
Fortunately, Reynolds can continue to rely on a consistent ground game. The 49ers have eclipsed the century mark on the ground in each game so far, including 306 against FCS Gardner-Webb. It's been a team effort, as two different players have logged 10-plus carries in each game but no single ball carrier has surpassed 75 yards in any one contest.
Though Middle Tennessee finds itself in the middle of the pack nationally in nearly all of the major defensive categories, one stands out: takeaways. The Blue Raiders have picked off three passes — including two against UTSA — and their five fumble recoveries are tied for the second-highest total in the country (Boise State, seven). Charlotte is one of those other teams with five, so turnover creation could be one of the determining factors on Friday night.
Middle Tennessee started the 2021 campaign with a big win over an FCS opponent but followed that up with a pair of double-digit road losses against tougher competition. Charlotte won its first two games, including knocking off in-state big brother Duke at home, before coming up short on the road last week. Look for both defenses to make their presence felt on Friday night, especially given the recent struggles of each team's offense combined with the short turnaround.
Prediction: Middle Tennessee 26, Charlotte 22
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— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.