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October 27, 2008

MT's red zone fortunes have improved

It's easy to look at the glass half empty and say Middle Tennessee had to settle for three field goals in five red zone trips against Mississippi State Saturday in a 31-22 loss to the Bulldogs.

An optimist looking at the glass half full though would determine the Blue Raiders scored on all five of their red zone trips in Starkville, giving them 11 successful red zone trips in 12 tries over the last three games.

That is a huge improvement over the first five games of the year, when the Blue Raiders converted only seven of their 13 red zone opportunities.

Red zone ineffectiveness probably cost Middle Tennessee a season opening win over Troy, was a significant factor in the loss at Kentucky, and nearly cost the Blue Raiders in their last second win over Florida Atlantic.

Even with the team on a current three game losing streak, the improved output in the red zone has been pleasing to head coach Rick Stockstill, despite the fact the Blue Raiders have had to settle for field goals on six their 11 most recent red zone scores.

"I think the big thing is that we are executing better (in the red zone). In that first game against Troy we got down there a couple of times and it was (a lack of) execution. We missed a block here or missed a block there. We got down (to the red zone) a couple of times earlier against other teams and missed relatively easy field goals when we had chances to get points. We are doing better kicking the ball.

"I think the biggest thing is that our young guys are improving. We are getting better each week and we are executing better when we've gotten down there here lately."

Middle Tennessee had five red zone trips against Florida International and scored two touchdowns and kicked two field goals. A Joe Craddock interception halted the other red zone advance.

Against Louisville, the Blue Raiders kicked a field goal and scored a touchdown in two red zone opportunities. At Mississippi State, they scored two touchdowns and kicked three field goals.

One of those field goals came early in the second quarter with Mississippi State holding a 14-3 lead.

Facing 4th-and-Goal from inside the one yard line, Stockstill elected to bring out Alan Gendreau for a short 17-yard field goal.

In a similar spot in the season opener against Troy, the Blue Raiders went for a touchdown on 4th-and-Goal in the second quarter of a 14-3 game and lost a fumble that Troy returned all the way deep into Middle Tennessee territory.

Stockstill said he was thinking back to that play a little bit when he called for the field goal at Mississippi State, but that his main thought process revolved around what he was expecting to ultimately become a defensive struggle.

"We haven't had much success knocking people off the ball in real short yardage situations," Stockstill said of his thought process on the second quarter field goal. "We had another (short yardage situation) at midfield later in the game on 3rd-and-1 and they stuffed us. We had to go to 4th-and-1 - really it wasn't even one (yard) - and we barely got that.

"We just haven't had much success and at that time of the game I didn't think Mississippi State was going to score 31 points on us. I thought every point was going to be critical. It was a 14-3 game at that time. I really thought we'd settle in on defense and I didn't think they would score that many points. I thought every point we could get would be critical so that's what why I decided to go with the field goal."

Stockstill has good reason to be as confident as ever in Gendreau, who has now connected on six straight field goal tries in the last three games.

With its recent red zone improvement, the Blue Raiders have climbed out of last place and into seventh in the league standings in red zone offense.

Troy leads the league with 31 scores in 33 red zone trips, including 21 touchdowns.


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