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What you need to know: BYU vs Middle Tennessee

Mired in a four game slump, the Cougars travel to take on the Blue Raiders in what some are tabbing as a must win game.

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Jordan Parker is tackled for a safety against BYU in 2013
Jordan Parker is tackled for a safety against BYU in 2013
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

The History

The BYU Cougars and Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders will meet for just the second time on Saturday.  BYU won the first meeting between the schools and will be looking to take the series 2-0.

Provo, UT 2013 37-10

Taysom Hill used his legs almost as much as his arm in the first meeting between the schools and led the Cougars to a win. With 177 yards through the air and 165 on the ground, Hill was able to balance out the offense as the defense held the Blue Raiders to 212 yards of offense. The Blue Raiders managed a field goal on their first drive, but BYU answered with a 90 yard kick return that allowed them a start at the Middle Tennessee 10-yard line. Three plays later Hill took it in for the first touchdown of the game and a 7-3 lead. After a defensive stop the Cougars fumbled the punt return, allowing the Blue Raiders a short field and a 16-yard touchdown pass for the lead. After an offensive drive stalled due to a fumble at the 2-yard line, the Cougars defense held as Kyle Van Noy forced a safety and cut into the lead.

BYU once again drove the field and once again fumbled, this time it slipped through the end zone for a touchback. After yet another Blue Raiders punt, Hill took matters into his own hands and went 50 yards for his second touchdown of the game, giving BYU the 16-10 lead. With 15 seconds left in the half, BYU once again found themselves inside the 5-yard line. This time Michael Alisa pushed into the end zone for a 23-10 halftime lead. Alisa would get his second touchdown of the day on the first drive of the second half after punching it in from one yard out. The final points of the game came near the end of the third quarter as JD Falslev returned a punt 71 yards for the first punt return since Falslev did it against TCU in 2011.

The Outlook

Middle Tennessee comes into the game at 5-3 and coming off a win over the University of Alabama Birmingham. On the other hand, BYU is coming off an embarrassing loss to Boise State where the defense allowed over 41 points in the first half. Fans have found themselves past the breaking point with the team and a vocal number are calling for massive changes from the coaches down to the walk-ons. Some can't even look at the schedule and see another win. Obviously that is not the case with this team, but sometimes perception is mistaken for reality.

The Positives

The offense continues to put up points contrary to what was expected. This week the Cougars managed a 17-yard touchdown rush from the returning Jamaal Williams, a 2-yard rush from Christian Stewart, and an 81-yard pass from Stewart to Colby Pearson. The offense finished with 259 yards passing, but only 63 yards rushing.

Fred Warner provided another spark for the Cougars as he recorded his first defensive touchdown as a Cougar. On the Broncos opening drive of the second half, Warner read the play that was called and was in position to make a play. With a short pass out to the flat, Grant Hedrick expected a wide open receiver. Instead, he found Warner sprinting between him and the receiver, grabbing the ball in stride and 20 yards later it was six points for the Cougars. To go along with his pick-six, Warner also recorded three solo tackles and an assisted tackle.

The Negatives

All you have to do is look at 637 yards and 55 points. Not only are fans frustrated with the defense, they are lucky to get up in the morning without the defense allowing another touchdown. The Broncos had six different players that recorded at least one rush or pass play that was longer than 20 yards. Twice the defense forced field goals inside the red zone, but made up for it by giving up 78- and 49-yard touchdown passes. The defense has lost all confidence in themselves and are finding themselves lost in coverage. The issues with the pass coverage have trickled over to the rushing defense and they are finding themselves in a tailspin.

The Cougars special teams have taken a major hit with Adam Hine being out. BYU used five different players on kick and punt returns against the Broncos. Not only did they average only 18 yards per kickoff, and only four per punt, the fumble inside their own 20 by Mitchell Juergens put the defense in a tough position. BYU must find a returner that can provide consistency and decent field position for the offense. If not, the Cougars will continue to struggle while losing the battle of field position.

The Match-ups

Christian Stewart vs. Blue Raiders Secondary

Everybody knows that the BYU secondary is one of the worst defenses, statistically speaking, in the country. Raise your hand if you knew that the Blue Raiders can't claim to be much better. Eight games into the season the Blue Raiders are giving up over 284 yards a game through the air. This puts them at 112th in the country, and only five places higher than the Cougars. If the offensive line can provide any protection against the Middle Tennessee pass rush, Stewart will have a chance to pick the secondary apart. Stewart will need to make sure he is on time with his passes, and improve on his accuracy in order to take advantage of this, but it is a winnable battle for the Cougars signal caller.

Cougar Running Backs vs Blue Raiders Front Seven

Jamaal looks like he is back and ready to put the team on his shoulders. This could be one of the few games that the Cougars can abuse the defense on the ground and through the air. The Cougar runners are averaging 190 yards per game on the ground while the Blue Raiders are giving up almost 180 per game. Middle Tennessee is giving up an average of 464 yards a game on defense and ranks 107th in the country in total defensive yards. BYU will have their chances to exploit the defense in more than one way, the question is if they will take advantage.

The Keys to Watch

When the Blue Raiders have the ball:

Watch for quarterback Austin Grammer to air it out. The Cougars are giving up almost 305 yards per game through the air and Grammer is completing 64 percent of his passes. With an average of 243 yards per game for the Blue Raiders, look for Grammer to exceed that number. Grammer has the receivers to spread the ball around as his top four receivers all have over 200 yards receiving. Marcus Henry and Ed'Marques Batties are the go-to guys as they have combined for 55 receptions and 667 yards. Watch for Middle Tennessee to rush early, trying to establish themselves on the ground with a number of rushing options. Jordan Parker leads the team with 98 rushes, but it is Reggie Whatley that leads the team with 522 yards on the ground. Don't count out Grammer as a runner either, he has 80 rushes for 273 yards.

Watch for BYU to stuff the run early and then provide help defense in the secondary. Don't expect the Blue Raiders to be shut down, but look for the Cougars to play with much more passion and fire this week. The defense has been shocked and embarrassed and are looking to win back the respect of the fans. It won't be an easy task, but one that could determine if the game is a win or a loss. Craig Bills should be back to playing speed, but Alani Fua is still up in the air. The coaches said he wasn't ready to play in Boise, and it showed. Even if he plays more than he did in Boise, don't expect him to be sharp and crisp.

When the Cougars have the ball:

Watch for the running backs to have a big day. Not only will Williams and Paul Lasike make noise on the ground, look for them to help out of the backfield on short passes. As the running game works, watch for the Cougars to take some more deep shots in the hopes of catching a few over the top. Stewart has shown that he can connect on the long ball, now it is time he does it consistently. Watch for the offensive line to provide enough time for Stewart that he will find a number of receivers that he can throw to, including the tight end. Devin Mahina will need to take a larger role in this game as he can create a mismatch at the tight end position, and watch for Stewart to take advantage.

Watch for the Blue Raiders to pick their poison. They will have a tough time stopping the run and the pass so they will focus on making the Cougars one dimensional. Middle Tennessee knows that the Cougars key weapon is Williams. Watch for them to set their target on stopping Williams, and Lasike, for short games and forcing Stewart to find his receivers. With the weapons the Cougars have at receiver, the Blue Raiders will need to present a furious pass rush. Currently they are averaging 2.5 sacks per game and will look to rattle Stewart in order to disrupt the pass game.

Interesting Tidbit:

Steven Rhodes, a sophomore defensive end for MTSU, found out firsthand how powerful social media can be.  The former Marine Sergeant, and current walk-on, was initially ruled ineligible to play college ball due to playing in 12 "intramural" games on the Marine base two years ago.  Last year, when MTSU appealed the decision, the NCAA granted a partial win for the school by allowing him to retain two years of eligibility but requiring him to red-shirt in 2013.  After the story was picked up by The Daily News Journal, and plastered across the nation, an appeals process that was expected to take weeks ended up taking 24 hours.  With support on twitter from veterans and congressmen, the NCAA granted him Rhodes immediate eligibility as well as all four years.  Rhodes ended up playing in 10 games last year and recorded seven solo tackles, three assisted tackles and half a sack. This year he has played in all eight games and has recorded three solo, four assisted, one sack, one forced fumble and four quarterback hurries.  For the full story from last year, click here.

Next Meeting

At this time there are no plans for the series to continue.

The Forecast:

Temperatures should be in the high 40's to low 50's with 0 chance of rain and winds from the NNW at 14 mph.

The Broadcasting Details

Time: 1:300 pm MDT

Where: Johnny "Red" Floyd Stadium-Murfreesboro, TN

TV: CBS Sports Network

Radio (BYU): KSL 1160 AM/102.7 FM, BYU Radio-Sirius XM 143

Listen Live via Internet (KSL): Click Here

Radio/Internet Links (MTSU): Click Here