It took eight long years and a global pandemic to reunite the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders and the Troy Trojans on the football field, but the "Battle for the Palladium" rivalry will be renewed on Saturday evening at Floyd Stadium. In fact, Saturday's game will mark the first of two matchups this season between these former Sun Belt foes, with MTSU visiting Troy on Nov. 21.
Troy makes its season debut on Saturday looking to rebound from last year's disappointing 5-7 (3-5 Sun Belt) campaign. It was a big step backward for a program that had won at least 10 games in each of the previous three seasons under former head coach Neal Brown. But the Trojans have reason to believe that better days lie ahead under second-year head coach Chip Lindsey. Their first test comes against an old rival on the road.
Middle Tennessee also expects to return to its winning ways following a disheartening 4-8 (3-5 Conference USA) season in 2019. Unfortunately, the Blue Raiders fell well short of those expectations in their opener two weeks ago, as they were totally overwhelmed by Army's triple-option rushing attack and a stifling defense en route to an embarrassing 42-0 shutout loss. Long-time head coach Rick Stockstill now looks to regroup and prove that his team's performance was little more than an aberration against an unconventional Army team. Do the Blue Raiders have what it takes to bounce back in their home opener against Troy on Saturday?
Troy at Middle Tennessee
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 19 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Troy -3.5
When Troy Has the Ball
The Trojans had their issues last season, but an offense that averaged 458 yards (18th in the FBS) and 34 points per game certainly wasn't one of them. A big reason for that success was quarterback Kaleb Barker (3,628 yards and 30 TDs), who has now exhausted his eligibility. That begs the question - Will the Troy offense be able to return to form with redshirt sophomore Gunnar Watson now under center? Saturday's game should go a long way in answering that question, as Watson makes his first collegiate start against MTSU after beating out former Vanderbilt quarterback Jacob Free and junior college transfer Parker McNeil for the starting nod. The good news is that Watson will be surrounded by a wealth of talent and experience at the skill positions and his chances for success appear promising.
The Trojans return their top seven pass catchers from last season – including the dangerous trio of Kaylon Geiger, Reggie Todd and Khalil McClain - who combined for 160 catches, 2,101 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns in 2019. The Troy run game looks to be strong as well. Running back B.J. Smith, who ran for 1,186 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2018, returns after missing much of last season with a knee injury. DK Billingsley, Smith's replacement last season, also returns after averaging 5.8 yards per carry with 10 scores in 2019. True freshman Kimani Vidal is another Troy running back to keep tabs on after a stellar fall camp. Center Dylan Bradshaw and left tackle Austin Stidham return to spearhead the offensive line. Both players have all-conference potential, but concerns do linger for an O-line breaking in three new starters on Saturday.
While the Troy offense is a completely different animal than the one Middle Tennessee faced in its opener, the Blue Raider defense will likely have its hands full again on Saturday. MTSU returns just three starters from a defense that struggled mightily against the pass last season. And unlike against Army, the MTSU pass defense will likely be tested early and often against Troy. Reed Blankenship is a bonafide star at safety, and the Blue Raiders are deeper at cornerback this season, which leaves room for optimism. But a pass rush that only produced 11 sacks in 2019 will need to step up in a big way for the MTSU pass defense to maximize its potential in this matchup.
After getting chewed up on the ground against Army's option attack, the Blue Raiders should fare better against a more conventional Troy run game. However, slowing down a talented Troy backfield will still prove challenging for a defense that replaces seven of its top 12 tacklers from last season.
When Middle Tennessee Has the Ball
Middle Tennessee's lackluster defensive performance in the opener didn't come as a complete shock against an Army run game that routinely makes opposing defenses look bad. However, the Blue Raiders' anemic performance on offense was surprising, to say the least. MTSU managed just 184 yards of total offense and turned the ball over four times against the Black Knights. It proved to be a particularly difficult afternoon for junior quarterback Asher O'Hara, who completed 9-of-14 passes for 46 yards with two interceptions and added just 37 rushing yards on 10 carries. It was a very uncharacteristic performance for the star dual-threat quarterback, who led C-USA in total offense (306.2 ypg) and racked up 29 total touchdowns a season ago.
O'Hara will be in search of redemption on Saturday, and his chances for a bounce-back performance appear favorable against a Troy defense that surrendered 35 points and 276 passing yards per game last season. Jarrin Pierce, Jimmy Marshall and CJ Windham provide O'Hara with a trio of experienced pass catchers. And while O'Hara is the unquestioned star of the run game, logging more than 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground last season, Chaton Mobley and Jayy McDonald are capable running backs that should also help the cause on Saturday. An experienced MTSU offensive line, that returns four starters from 2019, should help pay dividends against the Trojans as well.
Junior linebacker Carlton Martial leads the way for the Troy defense. Martial was a one-man wrecking crew last season, racking up 126 tackles (18.5 for a loss), four sacks, and three interceptions en route to first-team All-Sun Belt honors. Meanwhile, Auburn transfer Richard Jibunor provides big-time pass-rush potential at the Bandit position for the Trojans. A young Troy secondary proved to be the weak link for this defense last season. And while concerns remain for that unit (and the Troy pass defense in general), the return of All-Sun Belt cornerback Terence Dunlap (missed the 2019 season due to academics) should help bolster that group, along with standout safety Dell Pettus.
Some growing pains are to be expected for Troy quarterback Gunnar Watson in his first-ever start. However, Watson has received glowing reviews throughout fall camp, and he is surrounded by more than enough talent to keep this offense humming against a suspect Middle Tennessee defense on Saturday.
It probably isn't fair to put too much stock into Middle Tennessee's blowout loss at Army, but a performance that poor can't be completely disregarded either. That being said, Blue Raiders quarterback Asher O'Hara is far too talented to fall flat again on Saturday. And it would come as a big surprise if this offense isn't able to put points on the scoreboard at home against a Troy defense that still has question marks of its own. But it won't be enough, as the Trojans take the first of two matchups this season between old rivals.
Prediction: Troy 31, Middle Tennessee 27
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— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.
(Top photo courtesy of MTSU Athletics)