Despite its struggle to run the ball, Tennessee’s four-game losing streak is likely to be grounded to a halt tonight against Middle Tennessee State.
The Volunteers (3-5) will be running against a defense that allows 218 rushing yards per game when they host MTSU (7 p.m., FSN) for homecoming. The Blue Raiders (2-5) gave up 338 yards rushing last week in a 45-20 home loss to Louisiana-Lafayette.
Tennessee tailback Tauren Poole should find room to roam, and true freshman quarterback Justin Worley, who’ll be making his second career start, should get good opportunities for deep passes against a defense overcompensating to stop the run.
“I think they are going to come out and try to run the ball on us, try to out-physical us,” said sixth-year MTSU coach Rick Stockstill, who has led the Blue Raiders to three bowls and a Sun Belt Conference title (2009). “Just run the ball mixed with some play-action passes, and try to help their quarterback, keep him out of long-yardage situations. They may come in and try to throw the ball all over the yard, but I think they will try to establish the run and play-action pass.”
The Blue Raiders are a 21-point underdog, but seem to have the attention of the reeling Vols, who have lost four straight and gone 10 consecutive quarters without scoring a touchdown.
Blue Raiders redshirt sophomore quarterback Logan Kilgore has passed for 1,869 yards, 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions. His favorite target is Malcolm Beyah, who has leads the team in receptions (39) and TD catches (six).
Beyah had a 26-yard TD catch in a season-opening 27-24 loss at Purdue. MTSU led the Boilermakers 24-17 with 9 1/2 minutes remaining.
The Blue Raiders also had near misses in a 38-35 loss at Troy and a 36-33 double-overtime loss at home against Western Kentucky.
“They have had some bad breaks and probably could have won three more,” Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. “But they certainly are more than capable of beating our tails, especially if we don’t figure out a way to score some points.”
Dooley said he planned to simplify the scheme this week for Worley, who struggled to manage the game in a 14-3 home loss to South Carolina in his starting debut last Saturday. Worley completed 10 of 26 passes for 105 yards and was intercepted twice in or near the South Carolina end zone.
Worley showed promise, and having a game of experience should aid his performance.
“I hope it will help,” Dooley said. “We screwed up the first play of the game and we only went over it 68 times – just to get the first play down, and we messed it up.”
The Vols will have to defend MTSU’s spread offense with a patched-up, suspect secondary. Safety Brent Brewer suffered a season-ending knee injury against the Gamecocks. Prentiss Waggner will move back to safety from cornerback.
True freshman Brian Randolph is expected to start at strong safety. Another true freshmen, Justin Coleman, or junior Marsalis Teague will start at cornerback along with Izauea Lanier. Teague didn’t play against South Carolina and didn’t start the previous week at Alabama after making eight straight starts.
“We really don’t have many options,” Dooley said. “We have to move Prentiss back and put some corners in. They have to go play better.”
Of course, Tennessee’s banged-up defense should have a healthy margin for error this week. And it should get more rest between possessions, assuming the running game gets untracked.
“They’ve seen the tape and know how we’ve played against the run,” MTSU defensive end Omar McClendon said. “So I believe they’ll just try to pound it.”
Notes: Ticket sales haven’t exactly been brisk for a matchup that will go against No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama. Dooley was asked about the top-two tilt. “Are you asking me to set the line,” he joked. “Good gosh, I’m worried about Middle, man. I’ve got enough problems. It doesn’t matter what I think about them, it’s what I said after the game: It only matters who plays the best for 3 1/2 hours. And they may play again anyway. It wouldn’t surprise me.” … Tennessee High graduate David Bibee is an MTSU assistant. Bibee is also a Tennessee alumnus, and played for the Vols from 1973-76. He also coached at East Tennessee State. … MTSU right tackle Alex Stuart’s father, Phil, started at right tackle for Johnny Majors’ Vols in 1988. … MTSU punter Josh Davis is a Tennessee transfer.