WKU set to face rival MTSU in first-ever C-USA matchup

WKU gets ready for their game against the University of Illinois Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014, at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill. Mike Clark/HERALD

Kyle Williams

WKU will play in one of its more notable games, of both the season and of program history, on Saturday as the Hilltoppers travel to Murfreesboro, Tennessee for the school’s first official Conference USA game against rival Middle Tennessee.

The two didn’t meet last season, but the rivalry is already the most storied in the C-USA with WKU and the Blue Raiders having faced off a total of 63 times. That’s 20 more than any other two C-USA members.

MTSU (1-1) leads the all-time series, 33-29-1, and won the previous meeting on Nov. 1, 2012 at Smith Stadium, 34-29.

The Blue Raiders were picked to finish second in the East Division of the C-USA preseason coaches poll with 73 votes, and WKU (1-1) was picked to finish fourth with 57 votes.

Both teams rank within the top-30 nationally in scoring offense, with WKU coming in at No. 17 and MTSU at No. 27. The Hilltoppers are third in the nation with 433 passing yards per game and the Blue Raiders are third in the nation in passing defense, giving up just 75.5 yards per game.

To make the arms race even tighter, MTSU allows just 290 yards of total offense per game, which ranks 30th in the nation, but the Hilltoppers average 551 total yards per contest, which is good for 15th.

“This is the most important game of the year,” Head Coach Jeff Brohm said on Monday. “It’s an exciting time for our players to get started in this conference. It’s going to be a challenge because you always want to start the conference schedule off with a win. But, this is a game that’s going to be tough. We’re going to have to play well and play well for four quarters.”

Nine-year MTSU Head Coach Rick Stockstill has led the Blue Raiders to back-to-back eight-win seasons and four total bowl appearances, including a win against Southern Miss in the New Orleans Bowl in 2009. 

The Blue Raiders dominated their season-opener against Savannah State, 61-7, and although they fell behind 28-0 in the first half against Minnesota on Saturday, MTSU lost by just 11 points. The Blue Raiders lost despite out gaining the Golden Gophers in total offense, 445-351.

Sophomore quarterback Austin Grammar leads the Blue Raiders on offense, having compiled 505 yards through the air through two games. Grammar has completed 37 of his 55 passes and 22 of those were good for a first down. He’s led the Blue Raiders on 11 scoring drives this season, six of which were good for 70+ yards, and MTSU is a perfect 10-for-10 in the redzone this season. However, Grammar has already thrown three interceptions to his two touchdowns.

Junior safety Kevin Byard and junior linebacker T.T. Barber, among others, anchor the MTSU defense. Byard has totaled eight tackles and two interceptions thus far this season. He’s rated the No. 4 safety by nfldraftscout.com and currently ranks third on the NCAA’s active list of players, 11 interceptions.

Barber ranked 35th nationally last season in total tackles per game (9.2) and 21st in solo tackles per game with 5.6. He’s off to another strong start this season, having totaled 18 tackles through two games. Barber was named to the Lombardi watch list, prior to the 2014 season.

“They are an experienced team who has won a lot of ball games in the past,” Brohm said. “They came into Conference USA last year and went 6-2. They went to a bowl game, won eight games, and their defense is very sound. They try not to give up the big play. They are a veteran group. …They know what they are doing and have a staff who has been there for a while. I just think it’s going to be a very tough ball game for us. Our guys are going to be hungry, and I know our guys will be ready.”

Brohm went on to say that the Hilltoppers have erased the bad taste in their mouths from last weekend’s 42-34 loss at Illinois. Despite giving up 21 points in the fourth quarter en route to the loss, redshirt senior Cam Clemmons said the team’s only focus is MTSU.

“We really preach not getting too high after wins and not too low after losses,” Clemmons said. “You take it for what it is. We came in yesterday and watched the film and learned from it and made the corrections. We move on and don’t make it a bigger deal than what it really is.”