The Charlotte 49ers host the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders in a pivotal Conference USA East matchup on Saturday, Nov. 2. The Blue Raiders enter the game with momentum after dominating FIU 50-17 last week.
“Unbelievable win on Saturday, we needed it, but now it’s on to Middle Tennessee,” said Charlotte Head Coach Will Healy. “They’re a great football team. They just scored a lot of points on FIU, a team that we obviously struggled and lost to. ”
After losing First Team C-USA All-Conference quarterback Brent Stockstill, the Middle Tennessee offense has found an equally dynamic quarterback in sophomore Asher O’Hara. Through eight games, O’Hara is accountable for 69.5 percent of the Blue Raiders’ all-purpose yards.
“You [Middle Tennessee] lose Brent Stockstill, a four-year starter that set every record in the book, and now Asher has come in and played really well for them. He brings a different dynamic," said Healy.
At face value, it appears the Blue Raiders run a balanced offensive attack through their spread system, as they average 32 rush attempts per game and 33 pass attempts per game. However, the Blue Raiders actually dial-up significantly more passing plays than rushing plays, but because O’Hara uses his rushing ability to scramble out of the pocket on passing plays, many plays that were intended to be passes end up being runs.
Entering the game, O’Hara leads all Blue Raiders in carries by a wide margin with 122 carries. The next closest Middle Tennessee rushers are Chaton Mobley and Brad Anderson with 35 carries, respectively. Furthermore, O’Hara leads the team in rushing yards with 609 yards. Senior running back Terelle West is the Blue Raiders’ second-leading rusher with 208 yards on the season.
“Obviously, when he [O’Hara] leads the team in rushing pretty much every game, you definitely have to take that into account,” said Senior Linebacker Jeff Gemmell. “We have things dialed in this week, but I’m not going to give them away.”
The Blue Raiders often initiate their ground game through read-option plays that put opposing defensive ends and nickel backs in precarious situations. The Middle Tennessee ground game ranks fifth among C-USA teams with an average of 179.8 rushing yards per game. However, the 49ers have one of the best defensive ends in C-USA in Alex Highsmith, and they have played stout run defense in their last two outings, only allowing 60 and 131 rushing yards to Western Kentucky and North Texas, respectively. Highsmith and the 49er front seven will have their hands full corralling the elusive O’Hara and the Blue Raiders’ stable of running backs.
The explosiveness of the Middle Tennessee run game often opens up passing lanes for O’Hara and the Blue Raiders. Wide receivers Jarrin Pierce and Ty Lee benefit from the strong ground game. Pierce and Lee lead the team in receptions with 30 and 29, respectively. If the 49ers’ secondary doesn’t clean up some of the mistakes they made against North Texas, Pierce and Lee could have big games.
“They have great weapons at wideout, they have a bunch of different backs they run it to,” said Healy. “I think they’ve got great team speed, but it starts with the quarterback, and he’s played pretty well for them.”
Charlotte running backs Benny LeMay and Ishod Finger might be due for big games against a porous Middle Tennessee rush defense that allows an average of 205.4 rushing yards per game to opposing offenses. Anticipate Healy and the 49er coaching staff to give both LeMay and Finger a high volume of work against the Blue Raiders.
After coming off of a career game, Charlotte quarterback Chris Reynolds could register a similarly impressive performance against a Middle Tennessee secondary that allows a C-USA worst 269.4 passing yards per game to opposing offenses. Despite being led by star safeties Reed Blankenship and Jovante Moffatt, who have three and two interceptions respectively, the Blue Raiders’ secondary has struggled. They don’t allow many big plays through the passing game, allowing at most two pass plays of greater than 25 yards in five of their eight games this season; however, they are susceptible to short, underneath passes to fast receivers. The return of freshman receiver Micaleous Edler, who clocked a 10.76 second 100-meter dash in high school, will benefit Reynolds and the 49er passing game against the Blue Raiders.
“We should have Micaleous back this week, ready to roll, so that will help,” said Healy.
The 49ers look to pick up their second in-conference victory against Middle Tennessee at 3:30 p.m.