A strong second half defense guided the Middle Tennessee State University Blue Raiders (7-6) to their first Bahamas Bowl victory at the Thomas A. Robinson National Stadium on Friday. They took down the University of Toledo Rockets (7-6) 31-24.
After allowing 17 points in the second quarter the Blue Raiders only allowed seven points in the second half – all in the fourth quarter.
The Blue Raiders head coach, Rick Stockstill congratulated the Rockets on their season but he loved the fight that his team put up.
“I’m really proud of our team. The toughness, the guts, the competitiveness, the resilience, the mental toughness they showed today, was fun to watch. I told them at halftime that I believed in them and I believed they were made of the right stuff. We had some opportunities that got away from us in the first half and the score could have been a little bit different.”
The game was close at the end of the third quarter with the Rockets holding a 17-14 lead. The third period ended with the Blue Raiders marching the ball on the Rockets 17-yard line.
A 17-yard touchdown rush by quarterback Mike DiLiello right at the beginning of the fourth quarter on a read-option play to help the Blue Raiders take a 21-17 lead.
Toledo had a three-and out on the next drive with just over 13 minutes left on the game clock in the fourth quarter.
After empty drives for both teams, the Blue Raiders needed to make the game a two-possession one. They found those points on a 59-yard hook-up between quarterback Nicholas Vattiato and wide receiver Jarrin Pierce. Pierce dodged a tackle attempt from the Rockets and ran into the open field with a little over six minutes remaining in the game to put his team up 28-17 after the extra point was good.
“I didn’t know [the corner fell on my touchdown] until I came back to the sideline and they showed me his reaction. It was just great execution. The concept is, we have a motion-over. The defense has to bump, so when I saw pre-snap it was man coverage and my boy Jaylin [Lane] in motion. I had the corner one-on-one. Usually when I have all that space on the outside, he thinks I’m going out so I faked like I was going out and one step and then took it up and my boy Nick delivered the pass,” Pierce said.
He finished the game with 114 receiving yards with the 59-yard reception being his longest on the afternoon. Vatttiato finished the game 23-for-35 for 270 yards with two touchdown passes to snag offensive player of the game.
The Blue Raiders managed to get a field goal in with 4:34 left in the game to go up 31-17 as the Blue Raiders players started to celebrate on the sideline.
The Rockets remained scoreless in the fourth quarter at that point. Senior linebacker D.Q. Thomas won the defensive player of the game award as he came away with a team high eight tacked, 1.5 tackle for a loss and a pass broken up.
“Playing hard starts way before the game,” Thomas said. “We practice hard, we do everything our way, so coming into the game is a lot easier. I don’t expect anything less from our defense. That’s all I got to say: we’re dogs.”
“For me personally, it’s fun for the seniors, but the young guys, it was more young guys than seniors. For them to come and for this game to mean so much to them, for them to fight so hard, I appreciate them more than the seniors.”
The Blue Raiders Tennessee was so good that it set a new Bahamas Bowl record with eight pass breakups.
A touchdown by the Rockets with 1:08 left in the game on a Dequan Finn to DeMeer Blankumsee on a 13-yard touchdown to make it a one score game. Finn finished the game 18-for-39 for 212 yards and was picked off once.
As expected, the Rockets went with the onside kick but the Blue Raiders recovered as the Blue Raiders sideline was in full celebration mode. They let the clock run out before running on the field and drenching Stockstill with water.
For the president of Middle Tennessee, Bahamian Sidney McPhee, it was a special win for him on his home soil after not being able to do so in 2015.
“To do it on my home turf is special. I always tell folks that I born here. To have family members, friends and government officials have MTSU win this championship means a lot to me. I want to thank all the people in The Bahamas for making the bowl game a successful one,” McPhee said.
Stockstill was happy for his president as he can come home and stick his chest out as a bowl champion.
One of the highlight of the day came in the second quarter when Finn threw a 90-yard pass to Matt Landers, who finished the game with 137 receiving yards for a touchdown as the Rockets went up 14-7 with 11:11 to go in the first half. It was the longest play in Bahamas Bowl history and the Rockets longest play of the year.
Middle Tennessee’s victory gives Conference-USA a 4-3 lead over the Mid-American Conference in Bahamas Bowl play.