- Associated Press - Friday, September 9, 2016

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Rick Stockstill insists what happens Saturday won’t determine how the rest of the season goes for his Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders.

For the Vanderbilt Commodores, it certainly could.

The Commodores blew a 10-point lead in losing their season opener to South Carolina, and now they host an in-state rival Saturday whose home is about 40 miles southeast of Nashville. Middle Tennessee rebounded from a loss to Vanderbilt last season to reach the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl, while the Commodores finished 4-8.

After opening the season with two straight home games, Vanderbilt’s schedule gets much tougher with road trips to Georgia Tech and Western Kentucky before diving back into the Southeastern Conference to host Florida.

“Our motivation is right in front of us,” Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said. “We need to play well.”

Vanderbilt leads this series 13-3 but needed two touchdowns in the final 6 minutes, 14 seconds to pull out a 17-13 win that ended a three-game skid to Middle Tennessee now in Conference USA. Now the Blue Raiders (1-0) are coming off a 55-0 rout of Alabama A&M; with quarterback Brent Stockstill having thrown five touchdowns and trying to start 2-0 for the first time since 2001.

“Absolutely I think this is a big game,” Vanderbilt linebacker and safety Oren Burks said. “Anytime you have an in-state opponent where you have bragging rights … We’re ready to go out and compete.”

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Some things to watch Saturday afternoon:

RUN DEFENSE: Middle Tennessee is very familiar with Vanderbilt junior running back Ralph Webb who beat the Blue Raiders by running 39 yards for a TD with 1:12 left. Webb ran for 97 yards in the opener for Vandy and now has a complement in converted linebacker Khari Blasingame as Vandy ran 42 times against South Carolina. Rick Stockstill notes Middle Tennessee played Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry at Alabama last season. “He’s going to break arm tackles, so you can’t do that,” the Middle Tennessee coach said.

PROTECT THE FOOTBALL: Vanderbilt has no turnovers, something the Commodores did only twice last season when they finished with 25 turnovers. Middle Tennessee was intercepted twice in its opener, something the Commodores are working on defensively after breaking up so many passes last season.

WHO’S CATCHING: Stockstill completed his first 22 passes, a nice accomplishment considering how injuries have decimated the Blue Raiders’ receiving corps. They lost three receivers to injuries this preseason with Demetrius Frazier was hurt in the first quarter of the opener. Richie James caught a team-high eight passes for 73 yards for a team that moved running back Desmond Anderson to receiver in August and freshman Tyshawn Brown from safety to a week before the opener.

TACKLING MACHINE: Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham has picked up where he left off last season. He finished 2015 with at least 10 tackles in the final four games, and he had a game-high 12 against South Carolina. He will be tested by Middle Tennessee running back I’tavius Mathers, who’s playing after sitting out last year as a transfer from Ole Miss.

QB RHYTHM: Mason says Kyle sophomore Shurmur remains Vandy’s starting quarterback after he was 8 of 22 for 73 yards in the opener. Shurmur could use some help from his receivers because C.J. Duncan is the only player at that position to catch more than one pass in the opener. Webb was the top target with three receptions.

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Online:

AP College Football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org and AP_Top 25 Twitter feed: https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker

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