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November 17, 2008It started in the fourth quarter of a 24-21 win over ULM.
The Blue Raiders faced four critical third down plays as they were trying to put the finishing touches on a victory over the Warhawks.
Joe Craddock hit three different receivers to convert three of those four attempts, each completion playing a key role in a pair of pivotal touchdown drives.
Middle Tennessee converted just 4 of 11 third downs in that game, but converted 75 percent of them when it counted most.
The Blue Raiders continued that momentum into Western Kentucky, where they were successful on 9 of 17 third down plays, including the critical 3rd-and-13 Craddock to Sancho McDonald touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter.
Add up the last five quarters and the Blue Raiders have converted 12 of their last 21 third downs (57.1 percent).
Head coach Rick Stockstill is certainly pleased with the strong recent third down performance.
Middle Tennessee has now elevated up to third in the Sun Belt in third down offense and Stockstill attributes at least some of the success to the offense performing better on early downs.
"I think our players are playing with more confidence and we are playing better," Stockstill said. "I think we are doing better on first down. We've had some third and 8-11 yard situations, but most of our third downs have been pretty manageable. That always helps ... to get in those types of situations."
In the last two games, Middle Tennessee has run 58 first down plays and averaged nearly five yards per play, while also averaging nearly four yards per play on 43 second down plays during the same time span.
It's much easier to convert 3rd-and-1 than 3rd-and-8, but Stockstill emphasized that third down work from varying distances is a crucial part of each week's game preparation.
"We spend a lot of time on it in practice," Stockstill said. "It's not just all of a sudden we started working on third downs."
If the Blue Raiders continue their third down success, they will have had a nice rebound from last year when they finished seventh in the Sun Belt in third down offense.
MT finished second in the category in 2006 when the Blue Raiders won a share of the conference championship.
Key run gives Tanner just due
Stockstill said last week leading up to the game at Western Kentucky that he has been impressed all year by the effort and determination junior running back Phillip Tanner shows with each carry.
He made those statements in the context that Tanner has not had a breakout individual performance to be rewarded for his efforts, but that game came against the Hilltoppers.
It was Tanner's second quarter fourth down touchdown run that served as his biggest highlight. The 29-yard score put the Blue Raiders ahead 14-3 as Tanner bounced off a tackler and got outside before turning on the jets.
"Everybody had a hand in it," Stockstill said of that play. "Phillip is a good running back. He hasn't had a whole lot of daylight this year but he runs with so much intensity and so hard ... Some of his better runs this year have come when he turned a three or four yard loss into a one yard gain."
Stockstill added that if not for Tanner's fourth quarter fumble that kept the door of opportunity cracked for WKU, Tanner's day would have been near perfect.