Bowl eligibility is on the line Friday night in this Conference USA East Division matchup
Injuries have riddled the 2017 season for Middle Tennessee (5-5) with multiple key playmakers missing extended periods of time throughout the year, including starting quarterback Brent Stockstill. But since Stockstill’s return to the lineup two weeks ago, the Blue Raiders have won two straight and can clinch bowl eligibility with a third consecutive victory.
Western Kentucky (5-5) also can clinch bowl eligibility with a win on Friday, but have a far more difficult stretch to close the season with a confident Middle Tennessee team this week and having to travel to FIU the day after Thanksgiving.
Neither team wants to leave it until the final week to secure postseason play, making this a crucial Conference USA battle Friday night.
Middle Tennessee at Western Kentucky
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 17 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Middle Tennessee -3
Three Things to Watch
1. He’s back folks
It’s like he never left. After missing six weeks due to a cracked sternum (yikes), Middle Tennessee quarterback Brent Stockstill returned to the field against UTEP in Week 11 and while he only completed 43 percent of his passes, he still managed to toss three touchdown passes in the blowout victory. The rust wore off last week against Charlotte as Stockstill threw for 255 yards and three more touchdowns, leading the Blue Raiders to a 35-21 win. With those 255 yards, Stockstill became the school’s all-time leading passer with 8,159 yards and he still has a year of eligibility remaining. If it wasn’t evident before, it’s pretty clear now. This is an entirely different offense with Stockstill under center.
2. Year of streaks
After a 1-2 start to begin 2017, the Hilltoppers rattled off four consecutive wins to get to 5-2 and looked primed for a third consecutive trip to the Conference USA Championship Game. That came to a screeching halt as Western Kentucky has now dropped three straight after a close 30-23 loss at Marshall last week. If WKU is to get the ship turned around, which needs to happen quickly if the Hilltoppers want to go bowling, it will have to be via the arm of senior quarterback Mike White. Western Kentucky currently ranks dead last in the country in running the football, averaging just 69 rushing yards per game. In his last home game of his career, White will need to lead this offense through the air.
3. Out of nowhere
Middle Tennessee has struggled for much of the season running the football. For one, injuries certainly have not helped the lack of the passing game with Stockstill and wide receiver Richie James out. In addition, no running back has seized the starting role this season with as many as four players getting starts, including WR Ty Lee who was basically used there out of necessity. That may have changed against Charlotte with converted linebacker Tavares Thomas having a breakout game, rushing for a career-high 195 yards and two touchdowns. If Thomas can provide a consistent rushing attack with a healthy Stockstill, this offense is awfully tough to stop.
Don’t expect to see the same fireworks that we are accustomed to when these two team meet. In the last three meetings, the two programs have combined to average 90 points per game with Western Kentucky winning each of the last two matchups. Although Middle Tennessee appears to be healthy and on the rise of late, there is something about playing a desperate team on the road, on Senior Day that gives the slight edge to Western Kentucky here.
Prediction: Western Kentucky 31, Middle Tennessee 27
— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.
(Top photo courtesy of WKU Athletics/Steve Roberts)