Middle Tennessee senior linebacker D.J. Sanders gets to experience two homecomings this week.
Not only will he take the field Saturday against FIU in his final homecoming football game as a Blue Raider, but he also welcomed home a new member of his family on Monday.
Sanders and his girlfriend of four years, Jada Burton, were blessed with the birth of their new baby boy, Jaden, just in time to watch Dad take on the Panthers Saturday.
“It’s been a really exciting few days,” Sanders said. “It kind of sunk in when I went home and laid down. I was just like, ‘Man, I’m a dad. I’m a parent.’
“I haven’t had any sleep over the last couple of days, though. I’m very tired.”
Middle Tennessee is hoping Sanders’ emotional day during his last homecoming and first game in front of his newborn son leads to a similar performance from 2016s matchup with FIU.
The senior finished with seven tackles, a tackle for loss and a sack, but it was an interception that was his most important play.
With the game tied at 35 in the fourth quarter, the Panthers started from their own 20-yard line with 1:48 showing on the clock and a timeout left, needing just a field goal to likely win.
Running back Alex Gardner gashed the Blue Raiders for 22 yards on FIU’s first play, taking the Panthers to their own 42 before Sanders brought him down.
It looked like FIU would waltz down into field-goal range with little resistance, but then Sanders made possibly the biggest play of his career.
Quarterback Alex McGough dropped back and fired quickly to his left, looking for a receiver on a slant route. Sanders read the throw and stepped in front for a pick, then raced down the right sideline 48 yards for a touchdown.
The score gave Middle Tennessee a 42-35 advantage with 1:22 left, and a forced fumble on FIU’s ensuing possession effectively ended the game.
“We had practiced that play the whole week prior and knew the quarterback wanted to throw to his no. 1 wide receiver,” Sanders said. “Something just said to me that was going to be the play where he was going to throw the slant, and it came and everything just slowed down.”
The Blue Raiders forced the Panthers into three turnovers in the 2016 matchup, the third of five games last season that MT finished with multiple takeaways.
This year, while the Raider defense has shown vast improvements over previous years, it hasn’t been as good at forcing opponents into turnovers. Through five games, MT has only come up with two, and both came in Week 2 against Syracuse.
Sanders said Middle Tennessee’s defense has been working to improve that part of their game. But, sometimes it’s also out of a defense’s control if an offense is being careful with the ball. The defenders just have to capitalize when mistakes are made.
“Everyone makes mistakes,” he said. “It could be late in the game or early in the game, we just have to be there to take advantage of the opportunity. It could only be one time through the game, so we have to be ready.
“We have to focus on it more in practice, stripping the ball, catching interceptions and little things. You have to do it so much to where it becomes habit or second nature to punch the ball out or getting in the right position for a pick.”
Having a big homecoming day filled with Panther miscues could go a long way in giving momentum back to the Blue Raiders early in the Conference USA season following a loss to FAU.
In order to force FIU into being loose with the football, the defense will likely look to Sanders to again come up with a big play. Three of his four career interceptions have been returned for scores, giving him the second-most pick sixes in program history, one behind Kevin Byard’s record of four.
“My teammates say me and the quarterbacks have deals going on to throw me the ball for scores,” Sanders said.
It’ll be an emotional final homecoming for Sanders, and as any parent knows, he may not get a lot of sleep in the few nights before the game with the new baby.
But, no matter how little sleep Sanders can manage heading into Saturday, he’ll be ready to help the Blue Raiders to another victory with a cast of family members in the stands.
“I think I’m most excited for a lot of my family coming up for the game,” he said. “It’ll probably be the most family I’ve had at one game. I’m excited for them to come up here, even though it’s probably not for me, they’re coming up for the baby.”
And while Sanders may not be sleeping a lot, don’t worry about Jaden. He’ll get plenty of rest.
“He’ll probably sleep through the game, but we’ll put him in some MT Blue Raider stuff,” Sanders said.