Rockets set to battle NIU tonight for MAC West
Published: Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Updated: Friday, November 16, 2012 12:11
Each member of the Toledo football team has a wristband that reads “11-30-12,” the date of the Mid-American Conference Championship game in Detroit.
Those bands serve as a constant reminder of what the team’s primary goal has been since last spring — become conference champions.
Matt Campbell and the Rockets have taken a ‘one-game-at-a-time’ approach all season, but it’s no secret that tonight’s game against Northern Illinois (9-1, 6-0) has been the most important one on the schedule all along.
For the third year in a row, the Rockets and Huskies will battle it out to decide who represents the West Division in the title game. With so much riding on each matchup, there’s no love lost in this budding rivalry.
“We know it’s a big game and we know it’s become a huge rivalry,” Campbell said. “The last two years, they’ve won two big football games because they out-physicaled us and they beat us. We’ve got great respect for their program and what they do, but we’ve got great faith in who we are and where we’re at right now and we look forward to the challenge.”
When asked what this rivalry means, junior running back David Fluellen paused for a few seconds and simply said, “MAC Championship. If you want to win the MAC, this is it right here. This is what you worked hard for in the winter, in the spring and all summer. This is what you worked for, this opportunity right here.”
UT is coming off a tough 34-27 defeat at the hands of Ball State last Tuesday. Toledo entered the game ranked No. 25 in the BCS standings but a flat performance and a questionable fourth down call in the fourth quarter put an abrupt stop to any more rankings talk.
Despite the mistake-filled loss, Campbell was quick to point out that the main goal is still within their grasp.
“Everything that we’ve worked for is still in front of us,” he said. “What can’t happen is that loss creating two losses. We know we play a great team this Wednesday, but Toledo cannot hurt itself two weeks in a row.”
Something else the Rockets can ill-afford to do is let Huskie quarterback Jordan Lynch have his way with their defense, something that is much more easier said than done.
The junior from Chicago has completed 63 percent of his passes this season for 2,175 yards, 19 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He has also run for 1,342 yards (sixth-best in the country) and 16 more scores.
It’s not difficult to see why some have placed him at the bottom of their Heisman Trophy ballots.
“What’s so impressive about Jordan is his ability not only to run the football, but his ability to throw it,” Campbell said. “I think that’s what makes him more dangerous than anything. He’s a great runner, he’s a tough player. Give Jordan all the credit in the world because he’s made himself a special player.”
The Toledo defense has seen its fair share of dual-threat quarterbacks, most notably Arizona’s Matt Scott and Cincinnati’s Munchie Legeaux.
You can expect to see a ton of read-option from Lynch, something the UT defense has surely prepared for all week.
“We have to play assignment-sound defense and fit where we need to fit,” said senior safety Jermaine Robinson. “Don’t let him get loose and stop the plays that he likes to run. Get some takeaways against him and get his confidence down.”
Toledo has their fair share of playmakers as well, but the unit as a whole hasn’t exactly been firing on all cylinders lately.
After averaging 41.5 points per game through their first four MAC contests, that number has fallen to 27 in their last three games overall.
Terrance Owens was completing 66 percent of his throws through UT’s first seven games for 12 touchdowns against just three interceptions. In his last three outings, his completion percentage has fallen to 51 percent with just two touchdowns and two picks.
While Campbell is quick to point out that the success of junior David Fluellen (over 180 rushing yards in his last six games) has taken some of the burden off of T.O., he’ll have to make more plays tonight than he has recently.
And he’ll have to do it in what figures to be a raucous environment.
It’s no secret that Huskie fans and players don’t care too much for the Rockets.
“Everyone is going to hate Toledo there, it’s going to be a great crowd,” Fluellen said. “It’s us against them. Nobody there is going to be with us, we all we got. You’ve got the man to the left of you and to the right of you. You’ve got to trust that they’ve got your back and I know our guys will.”
The Rockets lost 63-60 in this matchup a season ago when the stakes were the same. It was the only conference game UT lost all year and prevented them from reaching the title game.
Fluellen is one of many who haven’t forgotten.
“The seniors preached about the nasty taste that was in their mouths last year,” he said. “I know I don’t want lead them out on a note like that, I want to lead those seniors out on the best note possible.”