Jordan Parker set the tone. Reggie Whatley closed the door.
Thanks to big plays by the youngsters, Middle Tennessee State is bowl eligible for the third time in four years.
Both running backs had career nights as the Blue Raiders held off feisty Sun Belt rival Western Kentucky for a 34-29 victory on national TV last Thursday. Parker’s 58-yard touchdown sparked MTSU and Whatley’s 96-yard kickoff return silenced the Hilltoppers.
Last year’s 2-10 campaign and a stunning season-opening loss to FCS foe McNeese State now seem like distant memories.
MTSU (6-3, 4-1) has won six of eight and is in a three-way tie for the league lead. It sits atop the Sun Belt standings with Arkansas State and Louisiana-Monroe. The Blue Raiders last reached six wins this quick in 2001.
Since senior Benny Cunningham suffered a season-ending knee injury three weeks ago, Parker has filled the void.
The freshman made his presence known early against WKU. He touched the ball 12 times on MTSU’s first 19 plays and busted loose for a season-long 58-yard touchdown late in the first quarter for a commanding 10-0 lead. He finished with a career-high 149 yards on 32 carries.
Whatley, another young tailback with much promise, lit up special teams play. The 5-foot-7 redshirt sophomore returned six kicks for a school-record 222 yards. He saved his best return for last.
After the Hilltoppers (6-3, 3-2) tied the game for the third time on a 28-yard field goal, Whatley struck. He needed just 14 seconds to sprint 96 yards to the end zone for a 34-27 lead with 6:03 left in the game. It tied for fifth-longest touchdown in school history.
In a flash, MTSU was back in control and on its way to bowl eligibility for the fourth time under seventh-year coach Rick Stockstill.
• Tennessee 55, Troy 48: The Volunteers (4-5) needed every one of Tyler Bray’s school-record 530 passing yards and five touchdowns to put away the Trojans. It was a necessary win for UT, which is fighting for bowl eligibility, and Derek Dooley, who is trying to keep his job. But it exposed more issues for the Volunteers, who gave up 721 yards and six touchdowns.
• Murray State 49, Tennessee State 28: The Tigers’ chances at an Ohio Valley Conference championship suffered a huge blow. Holding the Racers in check for most of the day, TSU (8-2, 4-2) surrendered 29 unanswered points in the final 15-plus minutes.
• Austin Peay 56, Culver-Stockton 0: The Governors (1-8) are off the schneid. One-win Culver-Stockton, out of the NAIA, was a welcome sight as Austin Peay snapped a 10-game losing streak, which was tied for the longest in the FCS.
• Eastern Illinois 31, Tennessee Tech 24: Sophomore quarterback Darian Stone impressed once again in his second straight start. But his 119 rushing yards couldn’t save the Golden Eagles (2-7, 0-6 OVC), who lost their seventh straight in an injury riddled season.
BY THE NUMBERS
5 – games, the length of Murray State’s winning streak over TSU. The Tigers last defeated the Racers in 2007.
222 – kickoff return yards by MTSU sophomore Reggie Whatley. The running back set a school record and ripped off a go-ahead 96-yard touchdown with six minutes left.
285 – carries by TSU running back Trabis Ward this season. The junior leads the FCS with the most rushing attempts. He rushed 37 times for 111 yards and a touchdown against Murray State. His 1,316 rushing yards this year are the third-most in school history.
378 – rushing yards for Austin Peay. The Governors averaged 6.2 yards a carry and four players combined for six touchdowns.
1,439 – total yards between Tennessee and Troy. The Trojans outgained the Volunteers 721-718.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Middle Tennessee State running back Reggie Whatley
The sophomore broke out for a superb night on special teams. The 5-foot-7 tailback rolled up 222 kickoff return yards to set a school record. His biggest run back came midway through the fourth quarter when he raced 96 yards for the game-winning touchdown and the fifth-longest return in school history. He also recovered a fumble in the second half. For the season, he has returned 22 kicks for 702 yards for nearly 32 yards a return.
QUOTE OF NOTE
“Football traditionalists are probably rolling over in their graves right now. ... As bad as we were on defense — and we were really bad — we stopped them two of the last five, and that’s the reason we won. At some point, you have to make a stop, and it took us a while to do that.” — Tennessee coach Derek Dooley
A win at Ole Miss will make Vanderbilt bowl eligible in consecutive years for the first time in school history. The Commodores have won four of five against the Rebels. ... Missouri at Tennessee pits two four-win teams in desperation mode. The winner is in the driver’s seat for bowl eligibility. The loser has no margin for error the final two weeks. ... It doesn’t get any easier for Tech. For the fourth straight week, the Golden Eagles face one of the OVC’s top four teams. This time, league-leading Tennessee-Martin comes in for senior day. ... Austin Peay snapped one lengthy streak but the Govs will have to upend a tough Jacksonville State team to snap a 12-game OVC losing skid.