By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
Middle Tennessee State might have lost its leading rusher and best player, but it’s not giving up on its running game.
Benny Cunningham, who was averaging 120 yards per game, is out for the season with a knee injury. So the Blue Raiders (4-2), who visit No. 15 Mississippi State (6-0) on Saturday, will turn to a stable of backups.
One is Drayton Calhoun, a transfer from LSU. A Super Prep All-American running back in high school, Calhoun was moved to cornerback at LSU but came to MTSU so he could get back on offense.
In his first season at Middle Tennessee, the junior has rushed for 199 yards and two touchdowns. He’ll be sharing carries with freshman Jordan Parker and redshirt freshman Jeremiah Bryson.
Coach Rick Stockstill was heartbroken over the loss of Cunningham, a senior.
“But that’s part of football,” Stockstill said, “and now those guys behind him have got an opportunity, and they’ve got to assume that opportunity and the responsibility and make sure they’re preparing themselves both mentally and physically to pick up the slack we’re losing now with the absence of Benny.”
This will be Calhoun’s chance to show why he can be a tailback at this level. Quarterback Logan Kilgore said he has “full confidence” in Calhoun and the other backs, and there is some reason for optimism.
When Cunningham missed a game against FAU earlier this season with a shoulder injury, Parker ran for 117 yards and Calhoun gained 104. MTSU had 302 total rushing yards.
“I know FAU is not Mississippi State, but that was only the second college game for both of those guys,” Stockstill said.
For MSU’s part, it’s still wary of the Blue Raiders’ run game, which should be helped by the play of Kilgore. The 6-foot-3 junior has completed 67.4 percent of his passes for 1,422 yards, nine touchdowns and three interceptions.
“They’re pretty balanced when you look at them,” MSU defensive coordinator Chris Wilson said, “so I think they’re still going to go out and do what they do, and they’ve still got a great quarterback back there to move the ball around.”
MSU has one very good reason not to take Middle Tennessee’s running game lightly: Last week, Tennessee rushed for 213 yards on the Bulldogs, and 167 of those yards came from backups and receivers because of an injury to starter Rajion Neal.
The Volunteers averaged 6.3 yards per carry and had a lot of yards after contact. MSU knows it has to tackle better this week.
“What it requires is fundamentals,” Wilson said, “and we’ve got to do a better job throughout this next (six) weeks of being more fundamentally sound and playing cleaner football games.”