LARRY JOHNSON / VandalVenue.com
Idaho jumped out to a 14-7 lead early at Middle Tennessee State, but the Blue Raiders reeled off 27 unanswered points to claim the 34-14 victory. Despite sophomore inside linebacker Robert Davis' 9 tackles, sack and interception on the afternoon, Idaho fell to 2-6 on the season and 1-3 in Sun Belt play.
LINK: Idaho Official Site Game Story & Stats
Inconsistency continues to haunt first year head coach Nick Holt and his staff. After an impressive home victory over Louisiana-Lafayette last Saturday in the Dome, the Vandals fell 34-14 to the Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee State. Played in front of an announced crowd of 16,918 in Murfreesboro, TN, this pivotal game saw the Raiders (3-4, 2-2 SBC) stay alive in the Conference championship race.
For Idaho (2-6, 1-3 SBC), this loss essentially shuts the door on their quest to remain in the SBC title hunt. The Vandals now assume the role of spoilers throughout the rest of the season as they take on Troy, Arkansas State, North Texas and Hawai'i to close out the season.
In this game, after building a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter, Idaho sustained an MTSU scoring spree just before halftime in which the Blue Raiders took a 17-14 lead into the locker room.
Those closing seconds before halftime were certainly unusual. After a 56 yard drive to knot the score at 14 apiece, MTSU kicked off to Idaho with 58 seconds left in the half. On the ensuing kickoff, the Raiders elected to "pooch" kick it just over the Vandal front line. The play worked as Idaho's Cliff Mason struggled to gain possession of the ball, and ultimately lost the fumble to MTSU. The Raiders drove 13 yards, setting up a 29 yard field goal attempt. The kick was good, and MTSU never lost momentum.
In the second half, Idaho's potent rushing attack was effectively shut-down as the Raiders forced Idaho to beat them through the air. True freshmen runningbacks Rolly Lumbala and Jayson Bird combined for 75 yards and one 1 TD on the afternoon, but most of those yards were gained in the first half. Idaho's young offensive line, effective at pushing the Raiders around in the first half, struggled to open lanes in the second half.
Although junior quarterback Michael Harrington threw for a TD and did not have a single interception while completing 67% of his passes, the passing game could not sustain any scoring drives after the 1st quarter. Hampered by a few dropped balls, some errant throws, and a couple QB/WR miscommunications, the passing game simply was ineffective without the balance of a strong running attack.
Hats off to sophomore TE Luke Smith-Anderson who caught his second TD pass in as many games, a 20 yard strike from Harrington in the 1st quarter. Same to Bobby Bernal-Wood who led all receivers with 10 catches on the afternoon for 91 yards and a long of 20 yards.
Defensively, as if Idaho's defensive tackle woes weren't enough, another injury was sustained. Junior Mike Bonelli (6-2, 240), a backup defensive end who's moved into the starting defensive tackle role (following the loss of starter Jeff Edwards a couple weeks ago with an injury), sustained an injury early in the second quarter. Arguably the unit on the team with the least depth, the injury was substantial.
For the afternoon, the Raiders gained 188 yards on the ground, 203 yards through the air, and were only sacked twice. The Vandals, who have been effective at avoiding giving up big plays for most of the season, yielded several this afternoon as the Raiders erupted for 52 yards on one rushing play and had 3 receivers gain 20 yards or more on passing plays.
For Idaho, sophomore WILL Robert Davis had a solid afternoon, leading the team with 9 tackles (7 solo), a sack, and an interception returned for 11 yards in the 1st quarter. Junior MIKE Cole Snyder tied Davis for the team lead with 9 tackles (7 solo), including 2 tackles for loss and 1 forced fumble.
Cornerback J.R. Ruffin was third on the team with 8 tackles (6 solo) and 2 tackles for loss.
Up next the Vandals head to Troy, Alabama to take on a rugged Troy University team. The Trojans (3-3, 1-2 SBC) have several defenders listed among statistical leaders in the Conference, and will be coming off a tough road game at LSU. The Trojans so far have beaten Marshall on the road, Missouri at home, and have not given up more than 22 points in a game yet (South Carolina scored just 17, NMSU scored 22).