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Opelt questionable as Toledo readies for NIU

By Jason Mack
On October 15, 2009

The Rockets could be without senior starting quarterback Aaron Opelt on Saturday in a must-win situation as they host Northern Illinois on Saturday at 7 p.m. in the Glass Bowl. After a 58-26 home loss to Western Michigan last week, a loss to NIU would greatly diminish the Rockets' chances at winning the Mid-American Conference.

"It is up to us to make sure we get better and we control our destiny," Toledo Head Coach Tim Beckman said. "We have to play Northern Illinois this week and we have to win that football game to stay in the hunt to be a conference champ. Our ultimate goal is to play on Dec. 4. We control that destiny."

Opelt injured his right shoulder on a seven-yard run in the second quarter of Saturday's loss. The initial diagnosis of the injury was optimistic, but Opelt was still experiencing pain in his throwing shoulder yesterday and Beckman downgraded his status for Saturday's game from "probable" to "questionable." Opelt did not fully participate in practice yesterday.

"If there's any chance I can be on that field, I'm going to be out there with my teammates," Opelt said.

Opelt struggled against the Broncos' defense, completing just 6-of-15 passes for 80 yards with 16 yards rushing. Sophomore Morgan Williams led the Rockets on the ground with a season-high 97 yards in his second-consecutive start.

If Opelt is unable to play on Saturday, the Rockets will start freshman Austin Dantin, who lost his redshirt status when he replaced Opelt last week. Dantin was efficient in his first collegiate action, completing 17-of-28 passes for 160 yards and three touchdowns, while also rushing 11 times for 36 yards.

"Whoever that next guy is, you never know when your name is going to be called," Beckman said. "It just happened to be last Saturday night that Austin Dantin's name was called.

"Of course we'd like to have Aaron in there, but Austin is very capable of doing what we need to get done to win."

It might not matter who lines up under center if UT (3-3, 1-1 MAC) fails to improve on a defense that ranks second-to-last in the nation in scoring defense, allowing more than 41 points per game. The Rockets also rank 113th with 454 total yards allowed per contest.

"It's hard, we've got a lot of young guys in the secondary so getting them together has been difficult," senior safety Barry Church said. "We have to become a more disciplined secondary as a whole, it seems like everybody's on the field doing their own thing and that's what we need to work on."

Church recorded five tackles last week as the defense allowed 282 passing yards and 252 rushing yards to the Broncos. WMU quarterback Tim Hiller completed 16-of-26 passes for 270 yards and three touchdowns, while running back Brandon West rushed 14 times for 153 yards and three touchdowns and threw a 12-yard touchdown pass.

"The passing game was wide open last week, it was torching us," Church said. "Then people were more wary about the pass and they'd hit us with a long run, so we're definitely going to have to communicate on all levels to be more successful this game."

After facing a pass-happy WMU offense last week, the Rockets have to adjust to the run-first offense of Northern Illinois. The Huskies (3-2, 1-0 MAC) have 213 runs compared to 102 passing attempts this season, gaining 1,007 yards on the ground and 810 yards through the air.

"I think that [NIU's] done a great job," Beckman said. "As I've watched them, they're a physical football team. They can run the football extremely well, their quarterback does an outstanding job of running that offense and definitely has some weapons at wide receiver."

NIU was off with a bye last week after dominating Western Michigan 38-3 in Dekalb, Ill. on Oct. 3. The Huskies are 1-1 against the Big Ten on the road this season, winning 28-21 at Purdue and losing 28-20 at Wisconsin.

The Rockets have a stranglehold on the overall series against NIU with a 28-8 record, but UT lost 38-7 on the road last season.

"We have to pull it together for NIU because they're a very balanced and disciplined team, especially on offense," Church said. "So we're going to have to come out firing on all cylinders in order to beat them."

"Our goals are still there," Beckman said. "Everything we want to achieve as a football team that we talked about from day one is still right there in front of us."

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