Middle Tennessee has a pair of weapons in its backfield that any other team in the Sun Belt would love to have, but Phillip Tanner and Desmond Gee are still looking for their first breakout ground games heading into week four.
The talented duo has found the going tough running behind a very young offensive line against three stout run defenses.
TOUGH SLEDDING FOR MT
Middle Tennessee ranks seventh in the Sun Belt in rushing offense, but the Blue Raiders have also gone against the toughest run defenses of any Sun Belt team. Below is the average run defense ranking of the teams each Sun Belt squad has faced so far this season (Any 1-AA opponent was counted as a run defense ranking 100th).
In fact, the run defenses the Blue Raiders have faced have been collectively much tougher than the ones faced by every other team in the Sun Belt (see chart at right).
"I think it's (mostly) the people we've played," Stockstill said of the reasons why the running game has not gotten off to a great start. "It was difficult to run the ball against Kentucky. Their front in the run game was better than our offensive line. They were more physical, they were stronger, they were faster, they were bigger. We just couldn't block those guys in the running game. We did a good job in pass protection because we had the back helping and they didn't blitz a whole lot so we were able to match up with them there in pass protection."
The Blue Raiders are averaging just 77.7 rushing yards per game and only 2.0 yards per carry.
Stockstill said he has game planned each game with the intent of being able to run the ball, but against all three opponents so far he quickly determined that grinding out yards in the trenches was going to be tough to accomplish.
"We went in with a plan of running the ball, we wanted to run the ball (against Kentucky). We thought we had to run the ball to be successful but they were just too good for us. Against Maryland I thought we ran the ball a little bit better but it was the same thing, when you have two redshirt freshmen and a true freshman (on the offensive line), it's going to take time and I understand that and I'm going to be patient.
"Obviously we've got to run the ball better. In the first game against Troy, I thought their defensive front was better than our offensive line. I just think it's a combination of the guys that we're playing, in the run game because of their athletic ability and a little bit of our youthfulness, they've been better than us in the running game. Hopefully we'll be able to continue to work and our guys will get better and we'll be able to run the ball better in our next nine games."
That is the challenge facing the offense as the Blue Raiders get set for this Saturday's game at Arkansas State.
In the history of the Sun Belt, the league champion has never ran for fewer than 1,600 yards as a team.
Middle Tennessee should have more chances to establish the running game in the coming weeks.
Arkansas State ranks second in the league in run defense, but after this week's game the Blue Raiders will have already seen the top two run defenses in the league.
The Blue Raiders rank third in the conference in run defense, so each league game following Arkansas State will come against opponents that have so far allowed a combined average of more than 200 yards per game rushing.