Each week, a reporter covering the Gophers’ opponent will be my guest to break down his or her team. This week, it’s Erik Bacharach of the Murfreesboro Daily News Journal. He takes a look at Middle Tennessee and Saturday’s game.
Here’s the Q&A with Erik Bacharach:
Q: Richie James is one of the best receivers in college football. What can a team do to stop or slow him, and what strategy has been most successful?
A: That’s probably the first question opposing teams ask when they see MTSU on the schedule, and certainly the most difficult to answer. James simply doesn’t have duds. Even when MTSU’s offense was in complete disarray in its opener against Vanderbilt, James went for 10 catches, 112 yards and a touchdown. Even as MTSU tried to get more players involved offensively last week, James still had eight catches for 96 yards and a touchdown. So there’s certain guarantee whenever he steps on the field. All a defense can do is put its best corner on James and try to limit the rest of MTSU’s offensive playmakers, which may in fact be the most successful strategy in trying to slow down a James-led offense. Last year, MTSU lost all three games in which James went for over 160 receiving yards.
Q: What’s the status of quarterback Brent Stockstill? Is he expected to play, and is this shoulder injury at all related to the surgery he had in the offseason?
A: We’re still waiting on MRI results on his left (throwing) shoulder and it will depend on how he fares in practice this week. It takes a lot to sideline Stockstill, though, so I’d expect him to be the starter Saturday. The injury is not related to the surgery he had on that same shoulder in the offseason. He was fully recovered near the start of training camp. He just took a hard, after-the-whistle hit during the Syracuse game when a defensive lineman landed on top of him, driving his shoulder into the ground. He actually played better after the injury occurred.
Q: Vanderbilt held Middle Tennessee to six points in the season opener. What did Vandy do to shut down an offense that was so explosive last season?
A: It simply boiled down to the success of Vanderbilt’s defensive front and the failings of MTSU’s offensive line. Stockstill was sacked five times against Vandy – an alarming number but made even more eye-opening when considering he was sacked just eight times in 10 games behind last year’s offensive line. He also was hurried four times and MTSU averaged just 1.9 yards per carry that game. There’s a lot of inexperience up front and a lot of meshing that still needs to take place. That said, Middle Tennessee was able to make some adjustments on the O-line at halftime against Syracuse, which helped Stockstill buy enough time in the pocket to complete three second-half touchdown passes.
Q: Defensive coordinator Scott Shafer broke out the victory cigar after the Blue Raiders’ win at Syracuse, his former employer. Now, he faces the team whose athletic director, Mark Coyle, is the person who fired him at Syracuse. Does Shafer have another cigar ready, just in case?
A: Wouldn’t that be something? Unfortunately, I’d be surprised if Shafer has another cigar stashed away for the Minnesota game. He whipped out two cigars after MTSU’s win at Syracuse – one for himself, and one for his son, Wolfgang, who is a graduate assistant. He’d gotten them during a family outing last year and had been saving them specifically for that moment. So, as far as we know, his stash has run dry. If that is indeed the case, it’s a bummer. As the Scott Shafer Revenge Tour rolls on, a win against Minnesota and Coyle would certainly be worthy of another victory cigar.
Q: So when all is said and done Saturday, will the Gophers get revenge for their basketball team’s loss to the Blue Raiders in the first round of the NCAA tournament? What’s your prediction?
A: MTSU’s defense looked great against both of the Power Five opponents it faced to open the season and its offense finally started to get something going in the second half against Syracuse. But the offensive line is still too inconsistent to rely upon, and I can see it being MTSU’s undoing again Saturday. I think the Gophers pull out a tight one, 31-27.