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Opponent Preview: The Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee

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UTEP finishes the 2014 regular season campaign with an important matchup with Middle Tennessee.

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

An important game for UTEP awaits as the Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee come to the Sun Bowl. MTSU has an advantage in conference record at 5-2, second in the C-USA standings behind Marshall. Fresh off a thrilling 35-34 win over FAU, the Blue Raiders look to improve on their overall record of 6-5.

Offensively, the Blue Raiders are lead by quarterback Austin Grammer. The sophomore has thrown 2,548 yards and 17 touchdowns on the season. Grammer has double digit interceptions with 11 so it will be critical that UTEP can take away the ball. MTSU is 29th in the country, one spot better than UTEP in rushing yards. MTSU has two capable backs in Reggie Whatley and Jordan Parker. Both have combined for 9 touchdowns along with 1,286 yards on the ground. What MTSU does well is score points, they rank 41st in the country in scoring (32 points per game) which is pretty well for a 6-5 team from Conference USA. With Grammer throwing interceptions frequently, look for the Blue Raiders to keep their production on the ground.

Defensively, keep an eye on two players who will be a difference-maker if not contained. Linebacker Leighton Gasque leads the team in sacks with 6. Safety Kevin Byard is a ballhawk in all sense of the word. Byard, the 2014 Pre-Season All C-USA pick leads the team with 6 interceptions which is good enough for 7th in the NCAA. UTEP needs to find a way to keep the ball away from Byard and run routes that get him away from the primary receiver. MTSU does not generate much of a pass rush so expect for this last game to a blitzing fury.

This weekend, expect ground and pound football from both offenses. UTEP has shown sides of an explosive offense but at times operates in a small space. Keeping Jameill Showers upright and dominating the opposing defensive line is key. Also, keeping the ball away from Byard will be crucial to a UTEP win. MTSU struggles in rush defense, meaning UTEP has to use their stable of running backs to keep MTSU on their heels. That's not to say that the Miner defense doesn't have struggles of their own. Stopping this MTSU running game will be yet another test. UTEP held Rice to 165 on the ground, they'll have to do all that and more to secure a victory.

The battle for 7 wins will be won in the trenches. It will be interesting to see which Miner team shows up in the home finale.