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Middle Tennessee sees victory over Gophers as branding opportunity

Minnesota Gophers Coach P.J. Fleck File photo

MINNEAPOLIS—Middle Tennessee State wants to spoil a pair of Gophers seasons in 2017.

After the 12th-seeded Blue Raiders toppled No. 5 Minnesota in the first round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament in March, the Conference USA program again wants to take down the Big Ten school in a nonconference football game at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.

"We want to win those big-time, Power Five games, and that's what we have to do to put our program on the map," Middle Tennessee State quarterback Brent Stockstill said Monday. "Like (basketball) coach Kermit Davis says, "We want to create a national brand here.' "

After a 28-6 loss to Vanderbilt of the Southeastern Conference in the season opener, the Blue Raiders (1-1) staged a comeback to beat Syracuse of the Atlantic Coast Conference 30-23 at the Carrier Dome in upstate New York on Saturday.

"Obviously it's a sweet win, but I think we're expecting these kind of games," Stockstill said. "We've done it before."

In 2016, Middle Tennessee lost to Vanderbilt 47-24 but later beat Missouri 51-45, an SEC squad that finished 4-8. Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill, Brent's father, has five wins against Power Five opponents in his 12-year tenure — with the last four wins on the road.

The Gophers (2-0) are an 8-point favorite over Middle Tennessee on Saturday, but that probably doesn't mean much. Minnesota was a 24-point favorite before beating Buffalo 17-7 in the season opener at home and a two-point underdog before routing Oregon State 48-14 on the road Saturday.

At Western Michigan, new Gophers coach P.J. Fleck beat Middle Tennessee State 45-31 in the Bahamas Bowl in 2015. Overall, Rick Stockstill has mixed in 10-win seasons with 10-loss seasons for a 73-67 record.

"They're a scary, scary football team, because of the amount of weapons they have," Fleck said.

The top threat is receiver Richie James, who has 18 receptions for 208 yards and two touchdowns in two games. If the junior leaves early, early projections have him as a late-round NFL draft selection next spring, according to Pro Football Focus. He had three touchdowns against Western Michigan in the bowl game.

"We haven't made the game plan yet," Fleck said Monday. "We're in the process of doing that, but you want to be best versus best."

James had 1,625 receiving yards last season, and his 1,347 receiving yards from the slot position were the second-most in Football Bowl Subdivision, according to Pro Football Focus. One of the Gophers' top defenders, Antoine Winfield Jr., has been playing in that area of the field in his nickel role this season.

Fleck doesn't see the experience against Middle Tennessee State in a bowl games as an added benefit now that he's at Minnesota.

"It's based on knowledge of personnel, but everybody evolves. I don't think it gives you an advantage," Fleck said. "But it is the familiarity that Stockstill is a phenomenal quarterback, James is a phenomenal receiver, and they've really done a tremendous job of recruiting to support them. It's not just those two guys, but now they have a lot of other people in supporting roles."

Brent Stockstill said he's been living in the training room to rehab an injury he suffered to his left throwing shoulder against Syracuse. He had surgery on that shoulder in February and missed spring practices.

If Stockstill, also a capable runner, can't play, the Blue Raiders will be hard-pressed to run the ball. They averaged 2.4 yards per carry against Vanderbilt and Syracuse.

When Middle Tennessee beat Syracuse last week, it led to a victory cigar for MTSU defensive coordinator Scot Shafer, who was fired as Orange head coach in 2015 by then-athletics director Mark Coyle.

With Coyle now serving as Minnesota's AD, Shafer could be eying a second stogie if his new team pulls off the upset Saturday.

Minnesota is 2-0 against MTSU all time, including Tim Brewster's last win as Gophers coach in 2010 before he lost the next six games, including defeats to South Dakota and Northern Illinois, and was fired in mid-October. Jerry Kill then beat the Blue Raiders in 2014.

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