Middle Tennessee football surged back in the second half, but fell short in a 35-24 loss to Big Ten power Minnesota on Saturday in front of 47,223 fans at TCF Bank Stadium.
Minnesota (2-0) dominated the first half with their potent rushing attack, taking a 28-point advantage at the break. However, the Blue Raiders (1-1) got its offense going by outscoring the Gophers 24-7 in the second half.
Offensively, Middle Tennessee netted 445 yards on 81 plays, while holding Minnesota to 351 yards on 61 plays. The Gophers capitalized on two first half interceptions to take a commanding lead early on. The Blue Raiders amped up its offense in the second with tailback Reggie Whatley scoring two of the three Raider touchdowns. Whatley finished with 84 yards on 14 carries, including his 44-yard touchdown run. The MT rushing attack ran 43 times, collecting 190 yards. Jordan Parker followed Whatley with 67 yards on 13 carries.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Austin Grammer completed 22-of-38 for 255 yards and touchdown, while throwing three interceptions. Eight different players caught passes with Ed'Marques Batties reeling in eight grabs for 88 yards. Marcus Henry had the lone MT touchdown catch with a three-yard grab late in the fourth quarter. Henry finished the day with five catches for 58 yards.
MT's defense was anchored by veteran T.T. Barber, who led the squad with 14 tackles. He was one shy of tying his career-best of 15 set at BYU last season. Jared Singletary, Kevin Byard and Chris Henry all finished with seven stops a piece. Byard picked up his 11th career interception late in the first half, which tied him for sixth all-time in program history.
Turnovers and penalties hampered the Raiders in the first half. MT finished with three interceptions and nine penalties for 80 yards.
Minnesota was held in check with their first drive after missing a field goal attempt. However, the Gophers capped off a 69-yard, 10-play drive with a Donnell Kirkwood one-yard touchdown.
The second quarter start was rough for the Blue Raiders. Jalen Myrick intercepted Grammer and ran 31 yards for a touchdown to put the Gophers up 14. Just over a minute later, Minnesota would pick up another interception and score one play later.
Minnesota stretched its lead to 28-0 at the half. The Gophers ran 24 of their 33 offensive plays on the ground, compiling 152 rushing yards and 219 total. Tailback David Cobb led the first half rushing attack with 111 yards on 14 carries.
Offensively, the Raiders were limited to 157 total yards in the opening stanza. Grammer completed 10-of-19 for 82 yards and two interceptions. Shane Tucker led the rushing attack with 23 yards on three carries.
Urgency was certainly the key for Middle Tennessee to start the second half. The Raiders ran down the field 75 yards in three plays. Whatley busted for a season-long 44-yard touchdown to give MT its first score of the game.
The Raiders drove down the field on their next drive to set up a scoring opportunity. A touchdown catch by Pettis was overturned due to being out of bounds. MT had three more chances after a penalty, but were unable to capitalize. Cody Clark hit a 21-yard field goal, cutting Minnesota's lead to 28-10 with less than nine minutes left in the third quarter.
Cobb continued to plow through middle and ran 48 yards to extend the Gophers' edge to 25. The bruiser completed the game with the most rushing yards for a Gopher since 2005 with 220 yards on 29 rushes.
Special teams once again came into play in the third quarter when Murfreesboro native Chase Pennycuff blocked a Minnesota punt to give the Raiders the ball at the 12-yardline. Whatley made the Gophers pay with a run on the next play, his second touchdown of the third quarter. MT added its final touchdown late in the fourth quarter with a pass from Grammer to Henry, cutting the score to 35-24.
Middle Tennessee returns home to take on archrival WKU next Saturday, Sept. 13 in a 6 p.m. showdown at Floyd Stadium. The contest is tabbed the Blackout contest and is the first game for the Hilltoppers as members of Conference USA.
CAPTAINS: Today's game captains were RB Reggie Whatley, CB Khari Burke and CB John Kelly.
BLUE HELMETS: Middle Tennessee debuted new blue helmets on Saturday against Minnesota to go with blue pants and white jerseys. It marks the 18th different uniform combination under Rick Stockstill. The blue helmets are being donned by the Raiders for the first time since 1977.
BYARD ADDS PICK: Junior Kevin Byard collected his second interception of the season late in the first half against Minnesota to stop a potential scoring drive by the Gophers. Byard now has 11 for his career which ties him with Jimbo Pearson for sixth place on the all-time list.
WHATLEY BREAKS ONE: Running back Reggie Whatley scored the eighth touchdown of his career when he went 44 yards in the third quarter at Minnesota. It marked Whatley's first score of the season and his sixth career rushing touchdown.
STREAK STOPS AT 9: Cody Clark's 21-yard field goal in the third quarter was his first of the season and his ninth straight going back to last season. Clark later saw his chase for the school record of 12 end when he missed a 41 yarder in the fourth quarter.
PENNYCUFF WITH BLOCK: For the second straight game, Middle Tennessee blocked a kick when Chase Pennycuff rejected a Minnesota punt in the third quarter. It went down as Pennycuff's first career block and the 30th in 102 games under Rick Stockstill.
QUICK HITTERS: Max Ugboaja, Shubert Bastien, Christian Henry and Leighton Gasque played in their team leading 39th career game today… Isaiah Anderson, Kevin Byard and Darius Johnson all made their 27th straight start to lead the Raiders … WR Marcus Henry has now caught at least one pass in 15 straight games which leads the Raiders … Zachary Lopez hit a career long 52-yard punt against the Gophers, breaking his previous best of 51 yards … WR Christian Collis made his 2014 debut after suffering a leg injury in spring drills.