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What can we expect from the Blue Raiders? Previewing Army vs. MTSU with Underdog Dynasty

We asked our friends at SB Nation’s Underdog Dynasty to give us a bit more info about Middle Tennessee State.

Middle Tennessee v Florida Atlantic Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

This Saturday, Army opens up its 2020 college football season against Middle Tennessee State University with a 1:30 p.m. kickoff at Michie Stadium.

The Black Knights and Blue Raiders have never met in football before and this game was quickly thrown together after both team’s schedules were thrown off-course due to concerns from the coronavirus. The two sides agreed to the game on Aug. 10. MTSU was originally supposed to open its season at Duke, and Army was supposed to face Bucknell.

Because we don’t know a whole lot about the Blue Raiders, we called up our friends at Underdog Dynasty, which covers all things related to Group of Five football for SB Nation.

Steve Helwick, who monitors CUSA closely, gives us the rundown on what we can expect.

AAE: After seven straight seasons with a .500 or better record, MTSU finished 4-8 last year. What went wrong? Will they be better this year?

Many predicted the departure of four-year starting quarterback and head coach Rick Stockstill’s son, Brent Stockstill, to adversely affect the program. While it was a rather seamless transition at quarterback from Stockstill to Asher O’Hara, the Blue Raiders’ defense took a major step back. In terms of yards allowed per game, Middle Tennessee ranked 52nd in run defense and 67th in pass defense in 2018 while winning the C-USA East. Those rankings fell to 113th and 101st, respectively, in 2019. Applying pressure in the backfield was a yearlong challenge, and Middle Tennessee finished as one of two FBS programs to average fewer than one sack per game.

It was a primarily senior-led defense and the Blue Raiders lost a great portion of their production from 2019, including the team’s top cornerback Jovante Moffatt and best pass rusher Tyshun Render. While their defense enters 2020 with plenty of question marks, the Blue Raider offense will be enticing. Asher O’Hara is back for his second season as a full-time starter, and his first go-around was a spectacle for fans of dual threat quarterbacks. With 1,058 yards, O’Hara had the highest rushing output in 2019 of all quarterbacks returning this season. He also added over 2,600 yards through the air with 20 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. With their next leading rusher only accumulating 290 yards last year, the running back group has nowhere to go but up. The ground attack will lead to an electric offense, but the defense — specifically the run-stopping and pass-rushing in the front seven — will need to improve to get the Blue Raiders back to above .500 territory.

AAE: How do you expect MTSU’s defense to handle the triple-option?

The fact that this game was announced in mid-August doesn’t bode well for Middle Tennessee in terms of coaching preparation. Last year, Rice’s coaching staff utilized ample time in the off-season to prepare for the Black Knights’ triple option and that practice was evident after Army only scored twice in the entire game. The current Blue Raider seniors haven’t seen a triple option attack during their time in Murfreesboro, so this will be a unique game-plan for Middle Tennessee players. If Army shows a bit of rust in its offense, recovering fumbles is Middle Tennessee’s ticket to stifling the triple option. But overall, I expect Army to generate about 300-350 yards on the ground Saturday.

AAE: Asher O’Hara — who had 29 touchdowns and more than 3,600 yards of total offense last season — seems to be the No. 1 playmaker for MTSU. Who else should Army be worried about?

Wide receiver Jimmy Marshall rose to the top of the depth chart last season as the Blue Raiders’ breakout player. He improved as the year progressed and accumulated a combined 235 receiving yards in his final three outings. He was also Middle Tennessee’s top end zone target, scoring five touchdowns in the five games to close the season. Now with a year of starting experience, Marshall is set to be O’Hara’s top target this season and could set the tone for his senior campaign Week One.

If there’s a name I’d throw out defensively, it’s outside linebacker D.Q. Thomas. The senior led the Blue Raiders in tackles for loss last year with 12, and he’ll be tasked a lot with disrupting the backfield in the upcoming contest. The execution of his containment on the edges could be make-or-break for Middle Tennessee on key third down situations.

AAE: What’s your prediction for the final score?

Army 28, Middle Tennessee 21. I think the Blue Raiders score on their first possession and take initial control of the game. But fatigue may be a factor for the defense as the game progresses, while Army unleashes its 10-minute possessions. Black Knights win the opener in a closely contested battle on their home field.

*A previous version of this story mentioned Martell Pettaway, who transferred from MTSU from West Virginia. He has opted out of the 2020 season.