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Gameday IX: Not Quite in Not-Quite-Nashville

 Middle Tennessee State quarterback Logan Kilgore’s been around longer than one of those acts you see 40 miles away in downtown Nashville, singing their butts off to sparse afternoon crowds and hoping to move up a notch (night gigs) or two (recording deal).

Kilgore gets rid of the ball – he’s taken only four sacks. He knows when to think big and doesn’t get in the way of a running attack that averages a Conference USA-best 221.2 yards per conference game behind Reggie Whatley and Jordan Parker. But Kilgore might have to make more plays than usual. FIU allows only 125.8 rushing yards per conference game, fourth best, and the Panthers don’t get the statistical benefit of a barn full of sacks as East Carolina and North Texas do. That’s actual rushing defense.

If senior defensive tackle Greg Hickman wasn’t spending the last 67 percent of the season plowing through a bad ankle, I’d really like this matchup for FIU’s defense. I think they could sit on Middle’s run, force Kilgore to do more than he’s used to doing and really cause him third down problems. Pressure up the middle does funny things to the best of quarterbacks. Coffee-hammering defensive coordinators drank Colombia and Peru figuring out how to get pressure up the middle on Dan Fouts, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

Speaking of third down, here’s an interesting matchup. FIU sort of found itself on third down last week – or found itself not bumping into each other – but is still converting a league-worst 28.3 percent in conference games. But Middle’s giving up a league-worst 58.6 percent on third down. The Blue Raiders give up points, 32.6 per conference game. Their conference games involve a lot of turnovers – 4.6 per game for both teams, as opposed to FIU’s 3.7. Even though Middle’s plus 3 in turnovers and FIU’s minus 1 in C-USA games, I’m a little leery about that many turnovers in games unless it’s lopsided in a team’s favor. The malodorous air of sloppy play can envelope a team too easily.

I watched Middle’s game against UAB last week. Their offense did little until sometime in the third quarter. They got punked on the ground when they played UAB’s quarterback as if he was an actual threat to strafe them. I see them sitting on the short stuff, crowding the box this week, beating on the tight ends and making sophomore quarterback E.J. Hilliard show he can beat them in the middle and deep zones. Collect the run on the way. Of course, if a Silas Spearman pops through, he’ll be playing house music.

In answering 5 Questions About FIU from Adam Sparks, a beat writer covering Middle, I predicted 31-14 with the Blue Raiders jumping up big early and holding the lead until the end. Consistency is a problem for young teams like FIU. I’ll say 27-17, Middle.

But that’s just one black man’s opinion. I could be wrong.

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