What can the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl do for an encore? The inaugural edition, with two wide-open offenses, delivered in a big way with a huge fourth-quarter comeback and a final touchdown that captured the imagination of college football fans everywhere.
While there are no promises of last-minute heroics in 2015, the second edition of the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl features a pair of teams who love to throw the football around, a battle between the current Conference USA and Mid-American Conference Freshmen of the Year and each team has a pair of wide receivers who have put up big numbers this season as Middle Tennessee takes on Western Michigan this afternoon in Nassau’s Thomas A. Robinson National Stadium.
Both teams are excited to be in the Bahamas to bask in the abundant sunshine and to enjoy the warm weather and the hospitality, and that excitement should carry over to the scoreboard in Nassau in the first meeting between the schools.
Both Middle Tennessee and Western Michigan enter the bowl with identical 7-5 records, and both the Blue Raiders and the Broncos posted 6-2 league marks in C-USA and the MAC, respectively. Middle Tennessee went on a roll in November and come to Nassau riding a four-game win streak. Western Michigan has won six of its last eight games, including an upset of No. 24 Toledo in the final regular-season game to claim a share of the MAC West Division title.
For Middle Tennessee, the Blue Raiders’ prolific offense under head coach Rick Stockstill (64-60 in 10 seasons overall and at Middle Tennessee) has scored 40 or more points five times, including a pair of 70-point explosions while averaging just over 34 points per game.
The Blue Raiders set a school record for total offense yards with 5,504 as Middle Tennessee has over 5,000 offensive yards for the third straight season and is 30th in FBS total offense at 458.7 yards per game. A large part of the offensive output has come from a pair of freshmen, quarterback Brent Stockstill, the son of the head coach, and wide receiver Richie James along with senior Ed Batties.
Stockstill, the 2015 Conference USA Freshman of the Year, set a C-USA record for most passing yards by a freshman with 3,678 yards and broke several Middle Tennessee single-season passing records including touchdowns (27) and 300-yard passing games (seven). Behind Stockstill’s efforts, the Blue Raiders are 17th in passing offense in FBS at 310.4 yards per game.
James, his favorite target, was named to C-USA’s first-team All-Conference squad after he set a school record for receptions with 100 and became the second player in school history to have over 1,000 receiving yards with 1,220 along with six touchdowns. The duo is the first 3,000-yard passing and 1,000-yard receiving combo in school history
Batties, a second-team All-Conference USA selection, has 77 catches for 960 yards and he is sixth in FBS with 13 touchdown receptions, which broke the Middle Tennessee single-season record. The duo of Batties and James are second in FBS in combined receptions with 177, behind only their counterparts across the field today from Western Michigan.
The Blue Raiders are also stout on the ground, averaging 148.2 rush yards per game behind senior Jordan Parker, who has 467 yards and six touchdowns while averaging 4.6 yards per rush and junior Shane Tucker with 383 yards and two touchdowns. Five players have 40 or more carries this season.
The Blue Raider defense has been tough to score on in the red zone as Middle Tennessee ranks fifth in FBS in red-zone defense percentage, as the team has allowed opponents to score a touchdown or a field goal 71.1 percent of the time.
A pair of first-team All-Conference USA players lead the Blue Raiders defense. Senior linebacker T.T. Barber paces Middle Tennessee in tackles with 89, including 11.5 tackles for loss and a team high-tying four sacks. Senior free safety Kevin Byard leads the team with four interceptions and holds the school record for picks with 18.
Western Michigan’s program is led by the youngest head coach in FBS, P.J. Fleck (16-21 in three seasons overall and at Western Michigan). The elite Broncos offense has lit up the scoreboard in 2015 with five games of 40 or more points, including three 50-point scoring outputs while averaging just over 35 points a game.
The Broncos offensive unit averages 480.9 yards per game, 21st in FBS, and they do it holding on to the football for an average of 34:32, second in the country behind only Stanford. One way to do that is to convert third downs. The Broncos are 13th in FBS in third-down conversions, making 47.5 percent of their attempts, just a few percentage points behind Clemson, the No. 1-ranked team in the nation.
Redshirt junior quarterback Zach Terrell, a third-team All-MAC performer, has thrown for 3,229 yards and 27 touchdowns this season while completing almost 67 percent of his passes.
Terrell’s connections to junior receivers and first-team All-MAC selections Daniel Braverman and Corey Davis have made them the top receiving duo in FBS with a combined 185 catches so far this season. Braverman has 103 receptions for 1,270 yards and 12 touchdowns, averaging 12.3 yards a catch. Davis has 82 receptions for 1,253 yards and 11 touchdowns, and he is averaging 15.3 yards per catch. Davis has 3,602 career receiving yards, the most among active FBS student-athletes, and 32 receiving touchdowns, second-most among active FBS players.
The Western Michigan run game is 34th in the country, averaging 197.2 yards per contest, thanks to 2015 MAC Freshman of the Year Jamauri Bogan. The redshirt freshman rushed for 836 yards on 143 carries and 12 touchdowns to become the second straight WMU running back to be named conference freshman of the year. The previous winner of that award, Jarvion Franklin, rushed for 699 yards and five touchdowns as a sophomore this season.
On defense, the Broncos are led by sophomore safety Asantay Brown with 100 total tackles and a pair of interceptions on the way to third-team All-MAC honors. Redshirt sophomore linebacker Caleb Bailey is second in tackles with 74, which include 12 tackles for loss. Redshirt sophomore cornerback Darius Phillips, a second-team All-MAC selection, leads the team in interceptions with five, and the converted wide receiver has 20 passes defended. His average of 1.7 passes defended per game is tied for fifth in FBS. Phillips is also a dangerous return man who is averaging 23.4 yards per return, including a 100-yard return for a score against Michigan State.
The Bahamas loves a track meet, and both Middle Tennessee and Western Michigan promise to give them one at the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl with the speed and quickness that show off some of the best individual talent in college football.