Benny Cunningham picked a bad time to go down with a knee injury.
Fortunately for Middle Tennessee State, Reggie Whatley chose an even better time to score his first touchdown of the season.
The backup running back scored with 36 seconds left and the defense followed with a stop at the goal line as the Blue Raiders narrowly defeated Florida International 34-30 on Saturday night in Miami.
Cunningham, two games removed from a career day at Georgia Tech, rushed for a personal-best 230 yards on 36 carries. But the Goodpasture product injured his knee in the last minute as the senior moved the Blue Raiders (4-2, 2-1 Sun Belt) to the 7-yard line.
Whatley, a sophomore, stepped in and scored on the very next play to give MTSU the lead just 24 seconds after the Cougars jumped ahead 30-27. Whatley also made the Blue Raiders’ game-winning drive a lot less dramatic as he ran the kickoff 43 yards to the FIU 40-yard line. MTSU needed just three plays to score and cap off a gigantic rally after trailing 20-3 in the second quarter.
But the drama wasn’t over.
The Cougars (1-6, 0-3) marched 71 yards in five plays but came up one yard short. As time expired Jake Medlock soared a 30-yard pass to Willis Wright. He was hit at the 1-yard line by MTSU’s Kevin Byard and then kept from spinning into the end zone by Jajuan Harley and Christian Henry.
The play was reviewed and upheld as the Blue Raiders erupted into a frenzy and stormed the field. The win gives MTSU its best record at midseason in Rick Stockstill’s seven years as head coach and is the team’s best start since 2001.
Mississippi State 41, Tennessee 31: The seat is warming up for Derek Dooley, who coached from the press box after undergoing hip surgery earlier this week. Despite an amazing night by receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, the Vols (3-3, 0-3 SEC) couldn’t stop No. 19 Mississippi State to fall to 0-13 in games against ranked opponents in three years under Dooley.
Tennessee State 40, Southeast Missouri 28: The Tigers (7-0, 3-0 Ohio Valley Conference) surrendered more points than they have all season. But they never trailed and were carried to victory by junior tailback Trabis Ward (43 carries, 267 yards and four touchdowns). They’re off to their best start since going 11-0 in 1999.
Eastern Kentucky 45, Austin Peay 14: That’s nine straight defeats and counting for the Govs (0-7, 0-5 OVC). Only Savannah State has longer current streak (13) in the Football Championship Subdivision.
BY THE NUMBERS
21 – tackles by Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson, who set a career-high. He is the first Vol to collect more than 20 tackles since Tom Fisher had 21 against Auburn in 1964.
230 – career-high rushing yards by Cunningham. He averaged 6.4 yards on 36 carries before injuring his knee in the last minute.
594 – combined rushing yards between TSU and Southeast Missouri. In addition to Ward’s career-high 267 rushing yards, SEMO had two 100-yard rushers (Scott Lathrop and Levi Terrell).
1991 – The last time a Tennessee player picked up a touchdown on a return and by rushing or receiving in the same game. Carl Pickens returned a punt for a score and hauled in a touchdown against Louisville in 1991. On Saturday, Cordarrelle Patterson returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown and caught an 11-yard touchdown to become just the fifth Vol to achieve the feat.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Tennessee State running back Trabis Ward
One career night pushed Ward closer to a milestone goal of 1,000 rushing yards in a season. The 5-foot-10, 200-pounder carried the ball an astonishing 43 times for 267 yards, second-most in school history. The junior also scored four touchdowns, including a 30-yarder with 1:26 left to seal a 40-28 win against Southeast Missouri State. He was named the Ohio Valley Conference’s Co-Offensive Player of the Week. He now has 908 rushing yards, inching closer to becoming TSU’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2008. He had 978 last year.
QUOTE OF NOTE
“This is probably the worst we’ve played defensively all year. But it is a W. Our offense really bailed us out. ... [SEMO] has been a tough place for TSU to play. So just to come down here and get a win to a tough, Tony Samuel coached team means a lot for our program.” — Tennessee State coach Rod Reed.
The Vols host top-ranked Alabama and a third straight loss looks inevitable. ... MTSU rolls into Starkville, Miss., to face unbeaten Mississippi State (6-0), which is off to its best start since 1999. ... The second half of the schedule bodes well for Vanderbilt (2-4, 1-3), which is trying to reach back-to-back bowls for the first time in school history. The Commodores host one-win Auburn, the first of four SEC teams who are a combined 1-13 in league play. ... TSU stays on the road to play Jacksonville State, which is the last team to beat the Tigers, holding them off in the final game of 2011. ... Homecoming should be forgettable for winless Austin Peay, which hosts Southeast Missouri. ... Tennessee Tech comes off a bye and hopes to snap a four-game losing streak with high-powered Eastern Kentucky coming to town.