Austin Grammer turned in a career high and Middle Tennessee turned back Southern Miss, 37-31, to remain atop the C-USA standings at Floyd Stadium Saturday.
MT improved to 4-2 overall and 3-0 in C-USA, while USM dropped to 2-4, 0-2.
Grammer completed 21-of-26 passes for a career-high 332 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Blue Raiders' offense, which piled up 583 yards. That total represents the sixth-most offensive yards under Head Coach Rick Stockstill.
Shane Tucker led MT with six receptions for 78 yards, while Devin Clarke finished with four receptions for 106 yards and a score. Ed'Marques Batties had five receptions.
While the Blue Raiders were effective in their passing game, they also enjoyed success on the ground. MT finished with 239 yards rushing on 39 carries. Reggie Whatley led the way with 100 yards on 10 carries, including a touchdown, while Shane Tucker added 60 yards on five carries and two touchdowns behind a Blue Raider offensive line that was dominant up front.
Starting linemen Darius Johnson, Adam Stickel, Daniel Stephens, Josh Chester and Isaiah Anderson established themselves early in the game, giving Grammer ample protection and paving the way for a consistent ground attack.
Whatley also had a strong day in the return game with two returns for 84 yards. Both returns set up Blue Raider scores.
Middle Tennessee's defense gave up 537 yards total offense but the unit stiffened when needed and didn't allow Southern Miss to finish drives. Christian Henry and Xavier Walker led MT with nine tackles each. Jared Singletary, Trey Wafford and Cavellis Luckett all had seven tackles. Kevin Byard had an interception and a blocked extra point attempt for MT.
MT led 24-12 at the half. After a scoreless third quarter, the Blue Raiders scored a big insurance touchdown early in the fourth quarter when Grammer connected with Clarke for a 33-yard touchdown strike. Cody Clark's extra point provided Middle Tennessee with a 31-12 lead early in the fourth stanza. The scoring drive covered 93 yards in 13 plays and took 6:05 off of the clock. It was Clarke's first touchdown of the season.
The Grammer to Clarke connection proved even bigger when USM took the following drive and went 92 yards in seven plays and scored when Nick Mullens connected with Michael Thomas for a touchdown. The 2-point conversion attempt failed and Middle Tennessee held on to a 31-18 lead with 10:07 remaining.
Whatley set up two Blue Raider scores with exceptional kickoff returns but he got into the scoring act himself with a long run in the fourth quarter. Whatley scored on a 64-yard scamper as he blew past the Golden Eagle defense and went untouched down the left sideline. It equaled the longest run of Whatley's career and staked the Blue Raiders to a 37-18 lead midway through the final quarter.
Southern Miss would not go quietly. Mullens threw another touchdown to Thomas on the following possession. The 2-point conversion failed and Middle Tennessee maintained its lead, 37-24, with 7:09 remaining.
The Golden Eagles added a late touchdown but the onside kick attempt went out of bounds and Middle Tennessee secured the victory. Middle Tennessee led throughout the first half but the game was up for grabs into the second half.
Middle Tennessee controlled the first half despite allowing 253 yards total offense to Southern Miss. The Blue Raiders grabbed a 24-12 halftime lead because of a consistent offensive attack and a defense that may have allowed some yards but it also stood tall at the most opportune times.
The Blue Raiders recovered a fumble and hauled in an interception to halt two drives and hold Southern Miss at bay. Middle Tennessee also blocked an extra point in the opening half.
Grammer was sharp from the outset. He completed 8-of-10 passes for 161 yards and a touchdown in the first half. His play was complimented by the ground attack of Shane Tucker, Reggie Whatley and Jordan Parker, who combined for 80 yards rushing and two touchdowns on the ground.
Middle Tennessee never trailed in the game. After holding the Golden Eagles to three-and-out on their opening possession, Middle Tennessee received the ball on the Southern Miss 24 following a 7-yard punt by Tyler Sarrazin.
The Blue Raiders took advantage of the good field position and went on top 3-0 following Cody Clark's 40-yard field goal with 11:36 remaining in the first quarter.
Corey Acosta answered with a 25-yard field goal to tie the game, 3-3, late in the first quarter but the Blue Raiders quickly regained the lead for good. Tucker's first touchdown of the afternoon capped a four-play, 36-yard drive. Reggie Whatley set the Blue Raiders up in great starting field position with a 59-yard kickoff return to the Golden Eagle 36.
Tucker was involved in all four plays on the scoring drive. He caught a 17-yard pass from Grammer, threw a 12-yard pass to Grammer and had two running plays, including a 1-yard touchdown run. Tucker's pass completion was the first of his career. Clark's extra point pushed the lead to 10-3 with 2:43 remaining in the first quarter.
It appeared Southern Miss was on the verge of tying the score after George Payne scored on a 1-yard run with 14:22 remaining in the first half, but Kevin Byard blocked the extra point attempt and the Blue Raiders held on to a 10-9 lead. Byard also had an interception in the first half to turn back the Golden Eagles. Byard hauled in the interception at the Blue Raider 1 to curtail the drive. It was Byard's 13th career interception and fourth of the season.
Middle Tennessee needed just one play to score after the Golden Eagles had closed to within 10-9. Once again, Whatley had a strong return to give Middle Tennessee possession at their 41. On the first play from scrimmage, Grammer connected with Terry Pettis for a 59-yard touchdown pass. Clark added the point after to extend the lead to 17-9 with 14:03 remaining in the half.
Another big play and quick scoring drive aided the Blue Raiders' cause late in the half. Tucker picked up his second touchdown of the half when he burst through the line and went 44 yards untouched for the score. Clark's kick gave Middle Tennessee a 24-9 lead with 5:12 remaining.
Acosta added a 26-yard field goal to pull the Golden Eagles to within 24-12 just before halftime.
First place in the C-USA standings will be on the line when Middle Tennessee travels to Marshall Saturday.