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September 3, 2009The long summer is over and football season is back as Middle Tennessee prepares to kick off the 2009 campaign at Clemson on Saturday in Death Valley.
What are the big items that will determine the outcome? Who should you pay close attention to on the Clemson side of ball?
GoMiddle.com breaks down who and what to watch when the season begins at 5 p.m. on Saturday.
THE BIG STATS
TURNOVERS- Giveaways were a common thread in some of Clemson's most crushing defeats last season and turnover margin can often be an equalizer for an underdog in a tough road game. In order to have the best chance to win, Middle Tennessee probably needs to be +2 in turnover margin. The best way for the Blue Raiders to have an opportunity to achieve that is for Dwight Dasher to play within himself and not force bad throws, while the defense needs to force Clemson signal caller Kyle Parker into some uncomfortable situations in his first start.
THIRD DOWN CONVERSIONS- This was a real weak link for Clemson's offense in 2008, as the Tigers converted less than 30 percent of their third down opportunities. Offensively for Middle Tennessee, the Blue Raiders will need to execute on third downs to sustain drives and maintain their ability to control the offensive tempo of the game. A couple of long drives early with MT's no huddle attack could help tire the Clemson defense and make the Tigers more vulnerable late in the game.
YOU'LL KNOW IT'S GOING WELL IF...
IT STAYS CLOSE EARLY- Playing a season opener in front of a sellout crowd guarantees that Clemson will come out of the tunnel with great emotional fire. Middle Tennessee must match that and stave off the Tigers' opening onslaught. If the Blue Raiders stay competitive early and get through the first half within 7-10 points, they could certainly pose a threat in the second half against a Clemson team that has had terrible difficulty closing games in recent seasons. Last year, the Tigers were outscored by 20 points in the fourth quarter.
MT'S OFFENSE IS BALANCED- A balanced offense means more than just being able to run and pass the ball. The Blue Raiders need to involve several receivers in the passing game to be truly balanced. With Clemson cornerbacks Crezdon Butler and Chris Chancellor both up for the Thorpe Award, MT needs multiple receiving threats to rise to the challenge in order to test the entire Clemson defensive backfield. If Dasher is able to spread the ball around to multiple targets and the Blue Raiders can be at least marginally effective on the ground, MT can put up some points.
YOU'LL KNOW IT'S GOING POORLY IF...
CLEMSON HAS EARLY BIG PLAYS- Riding that emotional rush in the first quarter will probably lead Clemson to try to hit on a couple of big plays. The Tigers will look to get the ball to either C.J. Spiller or Jacoby Ford and the Raiders have to send a message on the first couple of series that they are capable of getting both speedsters to the ground. Early fireworks for Clemson would put MT in a deep early hole.
MT CAN'T RUN THE BALL- Phillip Tanner and the rest of the Blue Raider ground attack has to be able to at least keep Clemson's defense honest against the run. MT will likely put the ball in the air a lot but the Raiders will need to be able to churn out some yardage on the ground at critical points in the game. If they can't, Clemson's secondary and pass rush could prove too tough.