MTSU tougher than it looks

Friday, September 19, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:04 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

With Big 12 Conference play and a matchup with Kansas a week away, it would be easy for the Missouri football team to look past Middle Tennessee State.

At first glance, the Blue Raiders are on the same level as Ball State and Eastern Illinois, teams the No. 23 Tigers defeated handily. Middle Tennessee State is 0-3 and plays in the Sun Belt Conference. The Blue Raiders’ losses, however, haven’t been to teams like Eastern Illinois, but to two of the nation’s more recognized programs.

A season-opening 20-19 loss to Florida Atlantic aside, Middle Tennessee State has lost at No. 7 Georgia and at Death Valley against Clemson.

Middle Tennessee State trailed Georgia 10-3 at halftime before the Bulldogs pulled away to a 29-10 win. The Blue Raiders followed that loss with a 37-14 loss to Clemson in a game that was 13-6 midway through the second quarter.

Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said the Blue Raiders’ solid showings against good competition make them a dangerous opponent the Tigers can’t overlook.

“Middle Tennessee State has had a very difficult schedule,” Pinkel said. “They played Georgia and they played them well. Their defense, against two really outstanding offenses has done a lot of good things. I’m very, very impressed in watching them.”

The Blue Raiders’ experience against good teams is not the only reason for Pinkel’s concern. Middle Tennessee State plays a 3-3 stack defense with five defensive backs. Weakside safety Brandon Lynch leads the defense with 27 tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery. Linebacker Randy Arnold, who is on the Butkus Award Watch List for the nation’s best linebacker, provides the Blue Raiders a stabilizing force in the middle.

MU receiver Darius Outlaw said Middle Tennessee State’s defense will provide the Tigers a tough test.

“On game film, these guys are tough,” Outlaw said. “Their defense is pretty solid and they’re fast. We played a good team last week, but the defense we are getting ready to face is a lot better than the defense we played last week and we had a little trouble last week.”

The Blue Raiders’ defense isn’t the only thing that has Pinkel worried. Quarterback Andrico Hines, tailback Don Calloway and receiver Kerry Wright give Middle Tennessee State solid offensive threats. Hines has thrown for 436 yards and two touchdowns and gained 56 yards rushing. Calloway has 181 yards rushing and Wright has 17 catches for 224 yards and a touchdown as Hines’ favorite target.

Pinkel said the Middle Tennessee State offense could present his defense with difficult matchups.

“Offensively this is probably the best athlete we’ll play at quarterback this year,” Pinkel said. “He has great quickness and speed. With Calloway, Wright and Hines I think they’ve got a pretty good punch.”

With a win, the Tigers would be 4-0 for the 12th time and for the first time since 1981. Pinkel said he is concerned his team might let down if it looks past the Blue Raiders. After beating Illinois in the opener a year ago, the talk of a 4-0 start went to his players’ heads and Bowling Green beat the Tigers 51-28.

Outlaw said Pinkel’s efforts to have the Tigers focused on games a week at a time are helping the team realize it isn’t good enough to look past anyone.

“We have been buying into it, but we haven’t completely paid the full down payment until this year,” Outlaw said. “We have to go out there and play our best game, if not, we’re going to get beat.”

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