After dismantling North Carolina A&T this past Saturday, Duke travels to Murfreesboro, Tenn., for yet another matchup against a team outside the Power Five.
This time, the Blue Devils will be taking on Middle Tennessee at Johnny “Red” Floyd Stadium Saturday at 7 p.m. for the first ever meeting between the two schools. Last year marked the Blue Raiders’ best season since they joined Conference USA in 2013, as head coach Rick Stockstill’s squad finished 7-1 in conference and appeared in the program’s first Conference USA championship game.
“[Middle Tennessee] has a great program,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “This is a championship program, hats off to [Stockstill]. Middle Tennessee is a great football school...this is a big, tough challenge for our football team—they know it. They’re very aware of that.”
But 2019 brings a new-look Blue Raider offensive unit, and it all starts with the quarterback position.
For the first time since 2014, Middle Tennessee will begin a season without Brent Stockstill as its starting quarterback. The Murfreesboro native graduated as the program’s all-time leader in completions, passing yards and passing touchdowns.
Over the summer, it was unclear who would fill in for Stockstill under center entering the 2019 campaign. Since then, redshirt sophomore Asher O’Hara has taken control of the job and has had success through two games.
O’Hara completed 22 of his 32 pass attempts for 217 yards and two touchdowns in the Blue Raiders’ season-opening loss at Michigan, which had college football’s second-best defense in terms of total yards allowed per game last year. The Illinois native followed that debut up with 367 yards and four scores in a dominant 45-26 win against Tennessee State.
It certainly helps that O’Hara has one of the country’s most experienced wide receivers to throw to. Senior wideout Ty Lee entered this year as the NCAA’s active leader in career receptions and an honoree of the Biletnikoff Award Watch List as the country’s top wide receiver. The Georgia native has nine catches for 116 yards and a touchdown through two games this year.
“You got to put some pressure on the quarterback first,” Cutcliffe said regarding mitigating Middle Tennessee’s aerial attack. “You can’t let them have time. They play often with four receivers. They’ve got different personnel groups. They’re going to throw a lot of screens to get people the ball where they can get started running with it. It’s just part of your game plan is you try to take what people do really well away as best you can.”
One big component Duke’s defense has to watch out for is the deep ball. Of O’Hara’s six touchdown passes on the year, five were longer than 20 yards, including two of 59 and 80 yards to Jimmy Marshall and DJ England-Chisolm, respectively.
“They’re a very fast group,” safety Michael Carter II said. “They are different [from] week to week. They come out in a lot of different formations that’s not conventional to what we usually see...on Saturday we have to be able to operate fast.”
The difficult part of containing that outside speed is that the Blue Raiders boast a formidable rushing attack as well. Although they struggled to the tune of just 67 yards on 28 carries against the Wolverines, O’Hara and company exploded for 237 yards on the same amount of attempts the next week.
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The dual-threat signal caller rushed 11 times for 103 yards in the contest, with redshirt sophomore running back Chaton Mobley adding 104 yards on nine attempts and two touchdowns.
On the other end of the ball, coordinator Scott Shafer has transformed Middle Tennessee into one of the most consistent defensive groups outside the Power Five. The Blue Raiders have posted two consecutive top-70 defensive campaigns since the former Syracuse head coach came to Murfreesboro, and that number shouldn’t deviate much this season.
Middle Tennessee’s best defensive group is likely its safeties, starting with redshirt senior Jovante Moffatt, who returns after missing all but four games last season while recovering from shoulder surgery. Junior Reed Blankenship—who posted two interceptions and a blocked PAT this past Saturday— joins him in the back end, entering 2019 on the Preseason All-C-USA team as well as the watch lists for both the Bednarik Award—best defensive player in college football—and Jim Thorpe Award—best defensive back.
Outside that duo, however, the Blue Raiders are forced to replace their top three cornerbacks from last season, inexperience that Moffatt and Blankenship simply can’t overcome by themselves.
Still, Middle Tennessee does have some explosive athletes in its front-seven—including linebackers Khalil Brooks and DQ Thomas—and should be a formidable test for a Duke offense preparing to enter its ACC slate after this game.
“We’re going to be treating each game like it is the most important game on our schedule,” quarterback Quentin Harris said. “Because it is. The next one is always the most important one…we’re looking forward to playing [the Blue Raiders], and the game there, a night game, which will always be fun.”