Homecoming — and all of its typical corresponding festivities — usually occurs during the last weekend of September, with many schools following that schedule. Fans in Murfreesboro will gladly push that celebration back by a week when they welcome home the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders from a historic road win last weekend as they get set to take on the UTSA Roadrunners for a Friday night showdown at Floyd Stadium.
Middle Tennessee (3-1) notched its first-ever win over an AP Top 25 opponent on Saturday — its first in 25 tries, with all but one of its previous losses coming by double digits — when the Blue Raiders went into Hard Rock Stadium and dominated the then-No. 25 Miami Hurricanes. The Blue Raiders collected three first-quarter takeaways and totaled 507 yards of offense, which propelled them to a 21-point lead that they held for much of the night en route to their 45-31 win.
Meanwhile, dominance wouldn't be much of an overstatement for UTSA (2-2), who bounced back from a Week 3 road loss to Texas with a 31-point second half to pull away from FCS Texas Southern, 52-24. The Roadrunners also featured plenty of historic feats of their own, including when wide receiver Chris Carpenter returned a kickoff (following a Tigers TD) 98 yards to the house. It was the first kickoff return for a touchdown in school history and the longest play in the program's 12 years.
The Roadrunners and Blue Raiders have only squared off four times, with Middle Tennessee victorious by 35 points in the opening matchup followed by UTSA's three straight wins (2016, 2020, 2021) by a combined total of 36 points. The only previous meeting in Murfreesboro came back in 2016, a 45-25 UTSA win in then-head coach Frank Wilson's first season at the helm of the Roadrunners.
UTSA at Middle Tennessee
When UTSA Has the Ball
Carpenter's return for a touchdown was hardly the only addition to the UTSA record books on Saturday. Quarterback Frank Harris completed 20 of 31 passes for a school-record 392 yards — powering the offense toward a single-game record 441 yards through the air. Harris and the Roadrunners enter this week leading the conference and sixth nationally with 351.5 passing yards per game. That has helped fuel the offense to 478.5 total yards and 37 points per game to rank second in C-USA in both categories entering Week 5.
Yardage wasn't the only feather in Harris' cap, however, as he threw for four touchdowns on Saturday and ran for one more, and backup quarterback Eddie Lee Marburger tossed a scoring strike as well. De'Corian Clark hauled in three of the TD passes (tying his own school record) and set a new program standard with 217 receiving yards on just nine receptions. Harris also connected with Joshua Cephus and Zakhari Franklin on TDs in the second half, and don't be surprised if those three senior wide receivers are once again the focal points for the passing attack on Friday night. Clark (104.2), Cephus (103), and Franklin (98.2) rank 1-2-3 in Conference USA in receiving yards per game, and the trio also leads the pack in receptions per game, paced this time by Franklin (8) followed by Cephus (7.2) and Clark (6.8).
Slowing down that unit will be a tall task for Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders rank in the bottom third of FBS teams in passing defense with 249.8 yards per game allowed. However, where this unit has thrived is making plays behind the line of scrimmage. MTSU leads the conference with four sacks per game and only trails Arkansas (5) for the national lead. The defense also has produced 8.8 tackles for a loss per game, tops in C-USA and seventh nationally. Defensive linemen Marley Cook and Zaylin Wood are tied for the conference lead with 3.5 sacks. Wood had two last week against Miami and also returned an interception 15 yards for a touchdown in the monumental upset.
When Middle Tennessee Has the Ball
After managing just seven points in a 44-7 opening loss at James Madison, the Blue Raiders have gotten it going on offense, putting up 34, 39, and 45 points in their last three games. Big plays were as much the recipe for the offense as for the defense this past Saturday, as all three of Middle Tennessee's touchdown passes against Miami covered at least 60 yards. DJ England-Chisolm had two of them — a 71-yard connection in the first quarter and a 98-yarder in the fourth. The other was a 69-yard TD by Elijah Metcalf to put MTSU up 31-10 over the heavily favored Hurricanes midway through the third quarter.
Besides throwing the three long TDs, quarterback Chase Cunningham finished the game with 408 passing yards and also had a rushing touchdown. The ground game was led by Frank Peasant's 74 yards and a score on 19 carries, with Cunningham chipping in 29 rushing yards. Peasant has shown a nose for the end zone thus far with his six rushing touchdowns placing him in a tie with Rice's Ari Broussard for the Conference USA lead. Peasant also is third in rushing at 72.5 yards per game.
UTSA has had trouble keeping opponents from scoring, as the three FBS opponents faced (Houston, Army, and Texas) have averaged 38.7 points per game. But similar to the Blue Raiders, the Roadrunners have done a good job causing havoc behind the line of scrimmage. UTSA is behind only MTSU in the conference when it comes to tackles for a loss per game (6.8). But stopping the run has been a different issue with the Roadrunners giving up 213 yards per game on the ground. Only nine other FBS teams surpass that number. So pay attention to see if UTSA can slow down the Blue Raiders enough on the ground to try and force Cunningham to take to the air. But then again, just look at the Miami game film to see how that strategy worked for the Hurricanes.
All three of the Blue Raiders' wins this season have come on the strength of at least 30 points scored, and they'll almost certainly need to aim for — rather, aim to surpass — that mark against the prolific Roadrunners. Defense could very well be the difference-maker on Friday night, as whichever unit is able to make enough plays for negative yardage and perhaps win the turnover battle may be the key driver for victory as conference play begins to take center stage.
Prediction: Middle Tennessee 44, UTSA 38
Podcast: Week 5 Preview, Predictions and Picks Against the Spread
— 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.
*Price as of publication.