Colorado State Football: First Look At The Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders
The Rams will get an intriguing home test against MTSU in non-conference play this September.
A contender, or a work in progress?
After beginning the 2022 season on the road at Michigan, the Colorado State Rams will debut Fort Air Raid for the first time at home against Middle Tennesssee State in Week 2.
The home fans might recognize something of past tenures in the Blue Raiders, who may or may not have stagnated under one of college football’s longest-tenured head coaches. Will MTSU be able to step a step back toward title contention in 2022 or will they run in place for another year?
Location: Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Conference: Conference USA
Series History: This will be the first meeting between Colorado State and Middle Tennessee State.
2021 Record: 7-6 (4-4 C-USA)
Head Coach: Rick Stockstill (17th year at Middle Tennessee State, 101-98 overall). MTSU under Stockstill has been the very definition of “fine”: Though the Blue Raiders have won ten games just once in his tenure, they’ve also won fewer than four just twice and have been to nine bowls. It’s not the worst station in college football, but the question is… does the program have a high ceiling?
Jordan Ferguson, DE
One of the best defenders anywhere in Conference USA, Ferguson has thrived since a knee injury wiped out his 2019 season. Last year, he led the conference with 17.5 tackles for loss and finished second with nine sacks, adding three forced fumbles to go along with 58 total tackles, but that somehow merited only a second-team all-C-USA nod. He’ll be a force to reckon with every week.
— Middle Tennessee FB (@MT_FB) June 11, 2022
Chase Cunningham, QB
Cunningham didn’t start 2021 as MTSU’s QB1, but he emerged as their best option and made five starts before a knee injury knocked out him out for the season. He played like one of C-USA’s top quarterbacks when on the field, though, completing 62.5% of his passes for 7.5 yards per attempt and 16 touchdowns against three interceptions, so a return to health could be a big shot in the arm for the Blue Raiders offense.
Teldrick Ross, DB
Where Ferguson gets things done up front, Ross makes hay in the defensive backfield. He made nine starts as a sophomore and finished 2021 with 49 tackles, 12 passes defended (tied for second among all C-USA players), two tackles for loss, and a pick-six. Though he mostly played outside last season, Ross also spent a little time in the slot and at safety, providing his unit with unique versatility.
— Middle Tennessee FB (@MT_FB) September 5, 2021
Jaylin Lane, WR
Despite the unexpected quarterback shuffling, Lane had a very good start to his college career as a redshirt freshman last season. He led the Blue Raiders with 528 receiving yards and scored four touchdowns on 42 receptions, but he also proved capable as a return specialist with 21.9 yards per kick return and 14.6 yards on 20 punt returns, including a touchdown and had 93 rushing yards and a score, too. That’s the kind of utility which can’t always be taught.
Zaylin Wood, DL
Where Lane looks like a cornerstone of the present and future on offense, Wood holds that same standing on defense. His redshirt freshman campaign was a pretty good one, too, as he picked up 29 total tackles and five tackles for loss. He even scored a critical touchdown on offense that would send Middle Tennessee to a bowl game, so his future is as bright as anyone’s on the roster.
Cunningham’s season-ending injury didn’t help matters, but that wasn’t the only issue that MTSU dealt with throughout 2021. The Blue Raiders finished 108th nationally in yards per play, 104th in earning 39.9% of available yards per drive on average, and 93rd in points per drive. That helps to explain why Brent Dearmon was replaced as offensive coordinator by Mitch Stewart, who had previously held the same job at Samford.
The good news is that MTSU’s quarterback depth might be pretty strong with both Cunningham and Nicholas Vattiato (67.3% completion rate, 6.1 yards per attempt, seven touchdowns, six interceptions) back in the fold. The bad news is that an underwhelming running game will need to refresh its own depth behind incumbent Frank Peasant (79 carries, 303 rushing yards, three touchdowns), but a pair of transfers from West Virginia and Kansas State, A’Varius Sparrow and Joe Ervin could step in to help pick up the slack.
That may be less important, though, that ensuring a veteran group of pass catchers acclimates to its own Air Raid offense. Lane, Yusuf Ali, Izaiah Gathings, and DJ English-Chisholm each had at least twenty receptions in 2021, so that cupboard is fully stocked. The offensive line, on the other hand, is retooling around veteran center Jordan Palmer, so protection issues could pop up from time to time.
While the offense struggled here and there, the Blue Raiders defense was just plain good in 2021. As ESPN’s Bill Connelly noted in his Conference USA preview, MTSU has finished in the top 70 of defensive SP+ in three of five seasons under coordinator Scott Shafer and are in a decent position to do it again after finishing in a tie for 28th among all FBS teams with 5.15 yards per play allowed, 51st by points per drive allowed, and 32nd by available yards percentage allowed.
Wood and Ferguson will lead the way up front, but don’t overlook defensive tackle duo Marley Cook and Jordan Branch, either. Cook had three sacks in 11 games, including a pair of starts, while Branch had three tackles for loss in ten games (three starts). Both could contribute more to what might be the best defensive line in the conference.
The situation further from the line of scrimmage is murkier, though, especially after the departures of both Reed Blankenship and DQ Thomas to the pro ranks. Ross and middle linebacker Jonathan Butler (46 tackles, 2.5 TFLs) are entrenched in their roles, but a number of players will need to take another step forward, like sophomore cornerback
There is potential that the Rams are slow out of the gate, to be sure, but MTSU’s lingering offensive questions might be the difference in a close game where both defenses should be well positioned to make plays.
Colorado State 28, Middle Tennessee State 24