The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders won their home opener against FCS Monmouth by 35 points but lost the next three. After following a close win in Murfreesboro over Marshall on Oct. 2 with a 28-point loss at Liberty in its most recent game, the Blue Raiders (2-4) will try to prevent a similar pattern from taking shape when they take on the UConn Huskies on Friday night in Storrs. Middle Tennessee hasn't fared well as the visiting team, losing all four of its road games — including a stretch of three in as many weeks — with all but one of the four coming by at least 14 points.
The season hasn't been any kinder to UConn (1-7), who squeaked past FCS Yale 21-15 for its first win of 2021 when freshman linebacker Tui Faumuina-Brown picked off a last-second desperation Bulldogs pass to the end zone. Recent defeats have at least been encouragingly close, as three of the Huskies' first four losses were by 30 or more points. Their last two against Wyoming and Vanderbilt, however, came by just two points apiece before finally coming out on top against Yale.
This will be the second time these two teams have played each other. Middle Tennessee won the first meeting, 38-14 at home back in 2001.
Middle Tennessee at UConn
Kickoff: Friday, Oct. 22 at 6 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Middle Tennessee -15.5
When Middle Tennessee Has the Ball
The Blue Raiders' offense continues to find itself right in the middle of the Conference USA standings, entering the second half of its season having scored at least 34 points in three games while being held once to 14 points and twice to 13, most recently in a 41-13 loss at Liberty two weeks ago. The story for Middle Tennessee's offense continues to be its absence in the first quarter. The Blue Raiders have trailed after 15 minutes in all four of their losses while leading 7-0 after a quarter in the win over Marshall and ending the first quarter of the season-opening win over Monmouth tied 0-0 before taking a 21-7 lead at halftime.
Middle Tennessee has rushed for just 538 yards over its first six games, for the sixth-lowest average in the FBS going into Week 8. Nearly 40 percent of that total came in Week 5 against Marshall when the Blue Raiders rushed 47 times for 209 yards — thanks in large part to Chaton Mobley's team-high 132 yards — and notched two of the four rushing touchdowns they've tallied all season, one of which Mobley also collected. Mobley's time at the top persisted into last week, though the team's 35 yards on 21 rushes — paced by Mobley's eight yards on four carries — highlighted Middle Tennessee's near-complete abandonment of the ground game in favor of trying to mount a comeback through the air. And despite the game ultimately ending in a loss, quarterback Chase Cunningham's near-mastery of Charlotte's defense on Sept. 24 presents arguably the best pathway to success for Middle Tennessee's offense going forward. Against the 49ers, Cunningham's 444 total yards — 379 passing, 65 rushing — comprised more than 88 percent of the Blue Raiders' offense as he accounted for all five touchdowns in their highest-scoring game (lost 42-39) against an FBS opponent this season.
One sign of UConn's major struggles on defense this season: time of possession. The Huskies' defense has been on the field for 34 minutes and 39 seconds per game in 2021. Only one other team's (Memphis) defense has been out there longer, and it's essentially tied (34:40). The amount of time UConn has had to play defense helps explain why the unit is giving up 35 points and 435 yards per game. Especially when you consider that 69 of the 96 points surrendered in the last four games alone have come after halftime. One of the Huskies who has made the most of his playing time is linebacker Jackson Mitchell, who is tied for the most tackles in the country (79) and is averaging 10 stops per game.
When UConn Has the Ball
The Huskies were shut out in two of their first three games this season but have shown signs of improvement with an average of 21 points scored over their last five. This offense still ranks 125th nationally in both points (16.6, 125th) and yards (276.6) per game, but UConn didn't turn the ball over on Saturday after committing 13 in its first seven contests.
Five of those turnovers were interceptions thrown by quarterback Steven Krajewski, four of which came in just two games against Vanderbilt and UMass. Krajewski, who took over after original starter Jack Zergiotis was replaced by Tyler Phommachanh who then suffered a leg injury on Oct. 2 against Vanderbilt and is out indefinitely, has just 701 passing yards in seven games with as many touchdowns (five) as picks. He did throw two TD passes (to Keelan Marion and Kevens Clericus) with no turnovers in the win over Yale and scored once on the ground. Nathan Carter is the team's leading rusher, although the freshman had just 39 yards on 17 carries after going over 100 in each of the previous two games.
The Huskies' offense will go up against a somewhat perplexing Middle Tennessee defense. The Blue Raiders rank in the bottom 30 nationally in both points and yards allowed per game but are second in takeaways (10 fumbles recovered, 8 interceptions). It's been a balanced effort thus far, as safeties Reed Blankenship and Gregory Grate, along with defensive lineman Jordan Ferguson and linebacker Cody Smith, have each forced two fumbles while Blankenship and linebacker Jurriente Davis have recovered two apiece. Blankenship leads Conference USA with 9.2 tackles per game while Grate isn't far behind at 8.8. Ferguson has been the top pass rusher with five sacks and nine tackles for a loss, placing him second in each category in the conference entering Week 8.
One area in which both teams have struggled throughout the season has been on third down. Only one FBS team has fared worse when it comes to converting on third down than UConn (25.6 percent) or Middle Tennessee (26.6), and that's New Mexico (25). So it's not that surprising that the Huskies and Blue Raiders have combined for three wins thus far. A win will either give Middle Tennessee its first road victory of the season or UConn will pick up a second home win for the first time since 2017. The offense that can sustain drives and avoid quick three-and-outs might determine who comes out victorious in Storrs on Friday night.
Prediction: Middle Tennessee 24, UConn 20
Podcast: Previewing Week 8 + CFB Expansion + Washington State Coaching Search
— 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.