MTSU stays grounded with a title in balance

Rock Stockstill would be the first to acknowledge that he didn’t expect his Middle Tennessee team to be where it is with just two games remaining in the regular season.

The Blue Raiders are 7-3, their most wins since 2006, and are 5-1 in Sun Belt Conference play with their only conference loss to leader Troy. But how the Blue Raiders achieved these feats is what has Stockstill most impressed.

Middle Tennessee entered the season with a new offensive system, a new offensive coordinator and a new quarterback. Early in the first game, it had to turn to a backup running back who had never played a down. It was hit with a slew of injuries at receiver and had turned to walk-ons for production.

“I think at this point, after 10 games, I don’t know that I could realistically sit here and say we’d be 7-3,” Stockstill said. “If you’d told me all of that at the beginning of the year and then said after 10 games you would have beaten Maryland on the road, beaten Memphis, been 5-1 in your conference and 7-3, I would have said I don’t know if that’s possible.”

Stockstill gives all the credit to the resiliency of his players. They’ve been beaten back several times this season only to come back stronger. The most crucial loss of the season, and one that will likely cost them a conference title, was against Troy at the beginning of the conference season. Middle Tennessee came into the game as the hottest team in the conference and Troy manhandled them 31-7. Stockstill said his team could have easily packed it in after that game, but came back determined to make the season memorable.

“After we lost to Troy, I just told myself that we needed to just keep practicing hard,” quarterback Dwight Dasher said. “I had a bad game that game, a real bad game. I think that was the worst game I’ve ever played in my life to be honest. But I told myself to keep practicing hard and get better at the little things.”

Dasher has been the biggest success story because of his ability to adapt to offensive coordinator Tony Franklin’s spread scheme. Dasher was known for his athleticism more than his passing ability, but he’s been able to refine both throughout the course of the season, Dasher currently ranks fifth in the country in total offense with 304 yards per game. And while he’s disappointed that he’s thrown 11 interceptions to go with 15 touchdowns, he said the patience the coaching staff has shown in him has paid dividends.

“Dwight has everything you want in a quarterback from the neck down,” Stockstill said. “He’s got to make his next step from the shoulders up. And he’s really done that. He’s done a pretty good job the whole year of protecting the football. He’s gotten a lot better from a leadership standpoint. He continues to improve his practice habits each day and each week and he’s reaping the benefits of his hard work right now.”

Middle Tennessee’s focus now is on finishing out its last two games against Arkansas State and Louisiana-Monroe. Stockstill said he’s told his players that a conference title could still be out there, but he doesn’t want his team to focus on anything but itself. The Blue Raiders would need Troy to lose to share the title.

“We have no control over if somebody beats Troy,” Stockstill said. “We have nothing to do with that. We try to worry about ourselves. We don’t talk a lot. That’s what we can control and our guys have really bought in and done a great job with that and staying focused and staying the course and not looking further ahead.”