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Gophers Open Season at Middle Tennessee State

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The Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee play host to the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the 2010 season opener on Thursday night at Floyd Stadium in Murfreesboro.

Minnesota wrapped up a rather disappointing 2009 campaign with a tough 14-13 defeat at the hands of the Iowa State Cyclones in the Insight Bowl. The Golden Gophers finished the season with a 6-7 record, including a 2-5 mark down the stretch. Minnesota also hopes to improve on its conference record, going just 3-5 in the Big Ten last season.

The Blue Raiders are coming off of one of the best seasons in program history after recording a 10-3 record in 2009, including an impressive 7-1 in the Sun Belt Conference. Middle Tennessee went on to record its first bowl win in the FBS era as the team defeated Conference USA representative Southern Miss, 42-32, in the New Orleans Bowl.

These two teams are battling it out for the first time ever on Thursday night.

The Golden Gophers struggled on both sides of the ball for the majority of the 2009 season. The running game averaged only 99.5 yards per contest, a number that is not strong enough if a team wishes to become a contender in the Big Ten Conference. Minnesota used a running back-by-committee approach as not one guy accumulated more than 400 yards rushing for the season. The Golden Gophers threw for a mediocre 207 yards per game which resulted in 15 touchdowns. Once again, that is definitely something that needs to be improved for 2010.

While the offense didn't necessarily step up to the plate, the defense presented an even bigger concern, especially when it came to stopping the run. Opposing running backs were able to amass over 150 yards per game on the ground, leading to 19 touchdowns. When the opponent's quarterback would use his arm as a weapon, the Golden Gophers were pretty solid in defending, giving up just over 217 yards per contest and 15 touchdowns in 13 games. In the final three games of the season, the defense showed great promise by allowing an average of only 14 points per outing.

Middle Tennessee comes into the 2010 campaign with momentum, something which is certainly going to be prevalent in the Blue Raiders' offensive attack. The team averaged 32 points per game last season, showing skill in both the passing and ground attacks. Blue Raiders' running backs were able to find the end zone 22 times while garnering 186 yards each contest. When Middle Tennessee went to the air, it found the promised land 25 times in '09, throwing for just over 235 yards per game.

While it was exciting to watch the Blue Raider offense do its thing last season, there is still some improvement that needs to be made on defense if the team is seriously considering sweeping through the Sun Belt this fall. Middle Tennessee allowed almost 137 rushing yards a game to its opponents. That number is not necessarily alarming, but the defense did allow 20 rushing touchdowns. The opponents quarterbacks threw for 218 yards per game for 16 total touchdowns on the year. The Blue Raiders showed some promise after the first quarter in last season's New Orleans Bowl when Southern Miss jumped out to a 14-0 advantage in the first quarter. After re-grouping, Southern Miss was only able to put 16 more points on the board as Middle Tennessee's offense went to work for a complete team victory.

The Gophers are hoping to get off to a hot start in the always-tough Big Ten, but they'll have to wait until their second game of the season. Expect the Blue Raiders to make their bid for another 10-win season with a victory at home on Thursday night.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Middle Tennessee 38, Minnesota 19

Photographs by Micah Taylor, clairity, and Fibonacci Blue used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.