UT defense prepares for first-place showdown
With Toledo off to their best start since 2005, the Rockets have used an unfamiliar formula which fans haven't seen in the past few seasons-a team led by its defense.
Toledo has had four players earn Mid-American Conference Defensive Player of the Week honors this season, each coming within the year's first seven weeks. From weeks two to four, sophomore linebacker Dan Molls, senior cornerback Desmond Marrow and senior linebacker Archie Donald earned the award, while sophomore defensive end T.J. Fatinikun won the award in week seven against Kent State.
"As a defense we take a lot into the game on ourselves," Fatinikun said. "For us to win a game it starts with our defense. We all believe that and we are just playing hard each and every game and down just to lead our team to a win and a Mid-American Conference Championship."
The Rockets have jumped out to a 6-3 record with a 5-0 mark in the MAC, tying themselves with upcoming opponent Northern Illinois (7-2, 5-0 MAC), who UT faces in Dekalb, Ill. on Tuesday, Nov. 9 at 7 p.m. on ESPN 2.
"This is what I came to Toledo for, big games like this," Marrow said. "It's one of those moments you always dream about. Everyone will be watching on national TV."
"Being involved with the defense my whole life is something I've taken pride in," UT head coach Tim Beckman said. "They've done an outstanding job. Whenever you go into a big game like [NIU] the defense has to rise to the occasion and make plays.
"We will have to step up to the challenge no question, because from the games I've seen so far they haven't been stopped. We are going to have to play a darn good game."
Although statistically the Rockets have the sixth-ranked scoring defense (25.2 ppg) in the MAC, games against No. 2 Boise State and No. 13 Arizona have bolstered their numbers. Without those matchups, Toledo gives up just 18.4 points per game-which would rank 20th in the nation and second in the conference.
One of the biggest struggles this season for the UT defense has been the field position they've been put in. Of the 23 scores against the Rockets defense this season, nine have been after the offense took over in Toledo territory (39 percent) with six of those occasions following turnovers.
The Rockets biggest weapon on defense has been their ability to force turnovers. Toledo has the ninth best turnover margin in the country (+1.0) and is tied for the most interceptions in the nation at 16 with Florida.
"The coaches stressing the importance of turnovers is the reason we are such an opportunistic defense," Marrow said. "Each game we play with that mentality."
With the upcoming matchup against Northern Illinois, Marrow will be returning to Huskie Stadium for the first time since tearing his ACL and meniscus on Oct. 2008 which sidelined him for the next 17 games until the beginning of this season.
"I think with everything that has happened this has made for a great story, especially this being ‘the scene' of my injury," Marrow said. "I just feel very blessed to be able to play in this game and I want to leave my mark on it. Most of all I want to help my team win because this is a huge game."
Marrow is tied for sixth in the MAC with three interceptions this season, including one returned for a touchdown, and is ninth in the conference in tackles per game by a defensive back (5.9).
One of the biggest surprises of the season has been Molls, who is tied for the team-lead in interceptions (3) while also second in tackles (9.67 per game) and sacks (3.5) and third in tackles for loss (6.5). His presence along with Donald, who has finished in the top 21 in the nation in tackles the last two seasons, has given the Rockets one of the top linebacker tandems in the country. Donald (9.78 per game) and Molls rank 26th and 27th, respectively in tackles per game in the nation, including third and fourth amongst the MAC's top stoppers.
"I'm just doing my job and what the coaches are asking me to do," Molls said. "Archie and I have played side-by-side. We really just feed off each other's energy. It really just comes down to everyone playing hard and all out on every play-it's just fun."
Fatinikun has also made a name for himself in the Rockets lineup. He has replaced senior Doug Westbrook in the starting lineup and is ninth in the MAC in tackles for loss (9.5) while also second on the team in sacks (3.5).
"There's been a lot of pressure put on me and a lot of expectations I have to live up to. Each and every day my coaches don't let me sleep at all, they don't let me slack on anything I have to do. They keep pushing me towards my full potential so that I can be the best player and teammate that I can be for our defense."
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