I sort of felt bad for Middle Tennessee State all offseason as the 2006 Sun Belt co-champ and Motor City Bowl participant was consistently mentioned in the same breath as 1-AA doormat Murray State when the topic of "those teams U of L plays before UK" was briefly brought up. I mean, this is a team coming off of a Division 1-A bowl game appearance with a defense that could very easily give Louisville fits, how dare they be lumped into the same category as a team that didn't win a game in the OVC last year?
And then the Blue Raiders went out and lost to Florida Atlantic by two scores.
Score one for the lumpers.
Second-year head coach Rick Stockstill warned MTSU fans throughout the summer that it was going to be very difficult for this young team to pick up where they left off a season ago, and while most fans and members of the media wrote this off as the words of a typical sandbagging football coach, Stockstill's sentiments proved prophetic in week one. The Blue Raiders fell behind Howard's boys 24-0, and finished the game with about half as many yards (217-411), and four times as many turnovers (4-1) as the Owls.
With the majority of the public already writing this one off as little more than another Heisman Trophy audition for Brian Brohm, here's what you can actually expect to see from Louisville's opponent Thursday night.
If there's one Louisville unit that can expect a serious test tomorrow night, it's the offensive line. MTSU returns nearly its entire two-deep, and all four starters to a defensive line that gave Louisville trouble for 30 minutes last October. The Blue Raider defensive line kept consistent pressure on Hunter Cantwell in the first half - although much of that can be contributed to the fact that Hunter was holding onto the ball far too long - and frustrated the struggling tandem of Kolby Smith and George Stripling as the Cards led by just six with less than 30 seconds to play before intermission.
One player who certainly won't be intimidated by the vaunted Cardinal offense is senior defensive end Erik Walden. The team captain and leading sack man in school history, Walden was in the backfield on what seemed like every Cardinal offensive play last year, dominating Breno Giacomini in what would prove to be his last start at left tackle.
All the way on the other side of the line is fellow senior Tavares Jones, a first-team All-Sun Belt performer in 2006. A fearsome pass rusher whose preference is to attack from the outside, Jones sacked Cantwell on U of L's first offensive series last year and notched his first of the new season last weekend in the opener.
The starting tackles are juniors Trevor Jenkins and Wes Hofacker who each had great seasons in 2006, but were non-factors in the FAU loss. Expect experienced end Brandon Perry and tackle Chris McCoy along with redshirt freshman tackle Gary Tucker to see significant time in the trenches as well.
Manny Diaz will show you your basic 4-3 defense on Thursday, except when U of L lines up any less than three wide receivers in which case the Blue Raiders will ordinarily stack the box with eight guys and blitz two linebackers, almost always from the same side. The problem with this is that MTSU's three guys in the middle aren't nearly fast enough to hang with Louisville's backs, receivers, or tight ends named Gary Barnidge if they're forced to cover them one-on-one or man the flats.
Senior Derek Shropshire made the move from defensive end to strongside linebacker this season, and is currently the Blue Raiders' leading tackler with six. Shropshire is the most physical of the three starters, but his game is more suited for the Sun Belt than it is for offenses like Louisville's.
Weakside linebacker Danny Carmichael will be used on nearly every blitz package (which should be coming at a fast and furious pace as Stocktill's gameplan is quite obviously to get pressure on Brohm), along with the man in the middle, senior Lonnie Clemons. Both are first-year starters, and combined they only recorded seven tackles and a sack against Florida Atlantic.
When things were going well early in last season's game, the Blue Raider secondary was doing an excellent job of disguising their coverages. Hunter Cantwell was finding it extremely difficult to differentiate between the zone and the cover two...Brian Brohm will not. Cantwell did improve as the game went on, however, catching MTSU hiding its hand a bit too long and hitting Mario on a quick slant for his first touchdown, and then continually finding wide open receivers over the middle when the Blue Raiders relaxed too much in their identified cover two in the second half.
Middle Tennessee starts four seniors in its secondary, but it's unlikely that they've seen a passing attack this potent thus far in their college careers.
Cornerbacks Bradley Robinson (nine career picks) and Ray Polite (played in all 36 games of his collegiate career) are athletic, but undersized at 5'10 and 6'0 respectively. The same can be said for safeties Dana Stewart and Damon Nickson, who both run 6'0. Nickson, a Florida native, is a preseason All-Conference performer who played a sensational game against Louisville a season ago. The unit gave a so-so performance in week one, allowing FAU QB Rusty Smith - a far, far cry from Brian Brohm - to complete 12 passes for 195 yards and two scores.
The good news for the secondary is that the U of L offense is likely to remain as vanilla as it was a week ago. The bad news is that that "vanilla" offense put up 73 points and accumulated 655 yards of total offense.
GAME ONE DEFENSIVE STATS:
FIRST DOWNS ALLOWED...........20
Yards gained rushing........239
Yards lost rushing..........23
Average Per Rush............5.1
Average Per Game............216.0
Average Per Pass............7.2
Average Per Catch...........16.2
Average Per Game............95.0
Average Per Play............6.0
Average Per Game............411.0
All of you who have been lamenting the fact that the Cards didn't record a single sack against Murray State may very well be in for a treat because Rick Stocktill is envying the offensive line situation Jim Leavitt has at South Florida right now. The Blue Raiders had three of their front five go down with injuries last week, and the unit will be severely undermanned and inexperienced when they take the field at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium tomorrow night.
Left guard David Price broke his hand, forcing him undergo surgery that will keep him out of action for at least two weeks. Right guard Richard Bortner reaggravated a cervical injury and is likely out two weeks as well. And senior center Brandon Nix also broke his hand but will play tomorrow night, starting at right guard.
The injuries will force redshirt freshman Jamal Lewis to make his first start at left guard, despite the fact that he himself is saddled with a high ankle sprain. True freshman Mark Fisher will also be making his first collegiate start, getting the nod at right tackle, while the person who started at that position in the opener, Mark Thompson, will slide over and play a center position he's never played in college. Franklin Dunbar is the only guy staying put, he'll continue to start at the always crucial left tackle position.
In all, MTSU has at least four offensive lineman out for Thursday's game, two guys playing despite injuries, four guys who are healthy and have played in a college game, and four more who are healthy but have not seen the field as a college athlete. The injuries and inexperience can already be seen in the stat book, as MTSU rushed for just 18 yards on 32 carries against Florida Atlantic, good for an average of .6 yards per carry.
Backs and Receivers
Middle Tennesse State will generally line up three receivers and start from one of three sets: QB under center with three wideouts, a tight end and a deep back; QB under center with three wideouts, a deep back and a fullback either lined up in the I or behind the strongside guard; QB in shotgun with three wideouts, a tight end or slot, and a running back.
Junior quarterback Joe Craddock looked like he'd just gone 15 rounds with Tim Kurkjian (underrated bad ass) after a first collegiate start that saw him sacked four times and knocked on his back repeatedly. He did complete 20 of 32 passes for 199 yards and a touchdown, but drew the ire of his head coach after two awful throws that ended up in the arms of Schnellenberger minions.
You can expect a lot of the same things from MTSU's passing offense that you saw from Murray State. They like to line up in the shotgun and throw quick-hitters along the sidelines or over the middle on crossing routes. When Louisville blitzes, Craddock will try to do what Ehrhardt did and throw the ball to the same area the blitz is coming from, this means that the majority of completions you'll see from the MTSU offense will likely come on passes over the middle.
The Blue Raiders also saw success on the few screen plays they ran last year, and the Murray State tape likely did nothing to discourage them from trying the same thing tomorrow night.
Adding to the likelihood of us seeing some screen plays is the fact that playmaker Desmond Gee will now be strictly playing wide receiver after splitting time between that position and running back all summer. Gee is the most explosive offensive player on the team, and offensive coordinator G.A. Mangus will be doing whatever he can to get the ball in his hands as many times as possible against a defense that showed it was prone to overpursuit a week ago.
Gee's shift means more carries for starting tailback DeMarco McNair, who carried the ball 16 times for just 21 yards in the opener. Unlike Murray State, MTSU doesn't run much misdirection out of the shotgun, and when they do run the ball from under center, it's almost always your basic straight handoff, off-tackle play. The Blue Raiders did try to get fancy on more than one occasion last year, and Mike Cassity would be foolish not to think that they won't roll the dice a couple of times again tomorrow.
Aside from Gee, Craddock does have some other options at receiver in Bobby Williams, Taron Henry, and the speedy Patrick Honeycutt, who led the team with six receptions in his collegiate debut. While Honeycutt will certainly see the field plenty this season, Gee's permanent move back to receiver likely signifies the end of his starting days at the z position. Last season Louisville played a significant amount of man coverage against the Blue Raiders, basically daring Marks to throw the ball deep. Expect to see a lot of the same this year, especially if the linebackers are having an easy time getting to Craddock early in the first quarter.
Though more utilized for his exploits as a blocker, tight end Stephen Chicola will display a decent set of hands on the rare opportunities he gets to catch the ball. He hauled in one pass for 14 yards last weekend.
GAME ONE OFFENSIVE STATS:
Yards gained rushing........90
Yards lost rushing..........72
Average Per Rush............0.6
Average Per Game............18.0
Average Per Pass............6.2
Average Per Catch...........9.9
Average Per Game............199.0
Average Per Play............3.4
Average Per Game............217.0
Poor special teams play played the largest role in this game being close for a half a year ago. The Cards punted poorly, their kickoff team tackled poorly, and Pat Carter fumbled a punt in the game that ultimately led to his removal from PR duties.
On the flip side there was Blue Raider safety and All-Conference return man Damon Nickson, who set a school record with 187 kickoff return yards on six attempts, including an 88-yard return for a touchdown the first time he touched the ball. Nickson is back, but averaged only 15.2 yards on five returns against FAU.
Matt King returns as MTSU's placekicker and "kickoff specialist." He did not attempt a field goal in game one, but made both his extra point tries and booted two of three kickoffs into the endzone for touchbacks.
Sophomore David DeFatta handles the punting duties, and received a workout last weekend while hitting eight punts for an average of 36 yards. His long of the day was 48.