After a last-minute comeback victory last Saturday over Florida International, 34-31; the MTSU football team hits the road this week for its toughest test of the season against SEC foe, Mississippi State (6-0).
Mississippi State is the first ranked opponent, the Blue Raiders (4-2) will face this season. However, the big story is MTSU will have to compete without its star running back, senior Benny Cunningham, who was lost for the season with an knee injury.
In last week's thrilling victory over the Panthers, Cunningham rushed for a career-high 230 yards on 36 carries with two scores. He was knocked out of the game in the final minutes when a FIU defender landed on top of his knee.
Cunningham is out for the season after the receiving the results from his MRI, which showed damage to the left knee, Blue Raider head coach Rick Stockstill announced Monday. Cunningham will have surgery by the end of the week, and officially his Blue Raider career is over.
“It's very unfortunate on a personal level because Benny is one of the hardest working and competitive players I have ever coached,” Stockstill said. “I feel like he has been short-changed in the last couple of years because of injuries. I have no doubt he will fully recover and have a shot at continuing his playing career at the professional level.”
It was his second game of the season where he rushed for more than 200 yards in a game. His performance earned him SBC Offensive Player of the Week honors for the second time this season. The other 200-yard performance came in the Blue Raiders 49-28 upset win at Georgia Tech on Sept. 29, in which Cunningham rushed for 217 yards and five touchdowns.
Before the season-ending injury last Saturday, Cunningham had rushed for 600 yards in five games this season with 11 touchdowns.
He was leading the SBC in rushing and scoring, while also ranking in the top 15 in the nation in both categories. He ends his career with 1,629 yards rushing with 21 scores from the ground, and a total of 23 overall.
Starting Saturday, the Blue Raiders will look to a running back committee, juniors Drayton Calhoun, William Pratcher and freshmen Jordan Parker and former Smyrna star Jeremiah Bryson to take Cunningham's place in the backfield rotation.
As for the game itself against the No. 15/16-ranked Bulldogs, MTSU will be looking for its first ever win against a ranked opponent since joining the Football Bowl Subdivision in 1999. All-time, the Blue Raiders are 0-13 against teams in the Top 25. It's last match up against a ranked squad was 2007, a 44-0 loss at then No. 2-ranked LSU.
Also, the Blue Raiders are 0-4 all-time against MSU with the last meeting coming in 2009, in which MTSU fell 27-6 at home against the Bulldogs.
Coming into the 2012 game, MSU is currently a perfect 6-0 after knocking off Tennessee last week 41-31. In total, the Bulldogs have won eight games in a row, which ties for third longest in the nation.
So far this season, the Bulldogs have only trailed for 16:11 in its six games, fifth longest of the season, and two of those wins came against SBC programs, South Alabama and Troy.
This game is also MSU's homecoming, and its head coach Dan Mullen is hoping for more fan support this Saturday.
“We can not play that way as a team,” Mullen said. “We need our fan base to have that same energy that we have and to give us that advantage. This is a good team that knows how to win on the road.”
Kickoff is Saturday at 6 p.m. inside Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville, and it will be shown on ESPN2.