For this weekly column, the Minnesota Daily will interview someone knowledgeable about Minnesota’s next opponent. This week, the Gophers’ opponent is Middle Tennessee State. The Minnesota Daily talked with Anthony Fiorella, a football beat writer for MTSU Sidelines.
Fiorella is in his second semester both at Middle Tennessee State and at Sidelines. This is his first season covering the football team. He covered baseball, men’s and women’s golf and club hockey for the paper last spring.
What was the difference between the loss to Vanderbilt and the win at Syracuse?
The biggest difference … was that they were able to find some sort of rhythm as an offense. They won’t necessarily go no-huddle a lot, but it’s an offense where they like to throw the ball. They throw the ball about 75 percent of the time, and they need to have good tempo. They only scored nine points in the first half against Syracuse, and they did not really have that tempo going, and in that second half, they found that tempo, [they] started spreading the ball around to some more guys other than [wide receiver] Richie James as well.
How different is the team this season compared to their 8-5 season last year?
Their biggest difference from this year to last is the defense. Last year, defensively, they gave up over an average of 35 points per game. [The] defensive coordinator from last year, Tyrone Nicks, is no longer with the team. They let him go in the offseason. [They] hired former Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer, and he’s now the defensive coordinator. He used to hold that same position at Michigan. He’s a seasoned guy, [and] they like to play a physical brand of defense.
The passing game seems to have been the strongpoint of the team, especially with Brent Stockstill at quarterback. What has he done at QB that has made the difference this season?
I’d say the best quality Brent possesses is probably his toughness. When he was a senior in high school, he led his team to the state semifinal game right before the state championship, and [he] played that game on a torn ACL, and they only lost by seven points to the team that ended up winning the state championship.
Given that he was injured last week, if Stockstill doesn’t play, what is the solution at quarterback?
In our press conference yesterday, he was saying [that] he felt fine, just a little bit sore, so I think all signs are pointing to that he is going to play. If he should not play though, the backup is John Urzua. He’s played five games and started three when Stockstill was out with [a] collarbone injury [last season].
What is the strongest position group on the offense?
Would definitely be the wide receivers. At wide receiver right now, [they] have Richie James. He came out in the Vanderbilt game and actually set the school record for receiving yards in a career, and he’s got a whole season and nine games left to play, he’s only a redshirt junior. He’s not really a big guy, but he’s really fast, has good ball skills [and] he doesn’t drop a lot of passes.
What is the strongest position group of the defense?
That’s a really debatable one. So far I would have to say the linebackers. Khalil Brooks actually won defensive player of the week for Conference USA last week. [He had] an eight tackle-performance, 1.5 sacks, 2.5 tackles for loss in the Syracuse game. They’ve also got a couple of other seniors at that position group to get playing time.
Who is the player that has flown under the radar this season?
Honestly, I would say [safety] Reed Blankenship.
What do you think will be the Blue Raiders’ record at the end of the season?
If they can escape Minnesota with a win, I would say they could easily be 9-3, 8-4, maybe even 10-2.
What do you think their conference record will be?
Within the conference, the only two teams that would be up in the air would be Old Dominion and Western Kentucky.
What is your prediction for the result of the game this weekend?
As far as how balanced [the Gophers] are as a team, I think it can be a really tough one. If [Middle Tennessee’s] offense can get something going, I think we might be able to squeak out about 24 points. I would say about 31-24, somewhere in there, I would probably say Minnesota takes that.