Kansas Looks to Ground Rockets

JI's Kevin Flaherty with a preview of Saturday's Kansas vs. Toledo matchup in Memorial Stadium. The Jayhawks look for some payback for last season's early season stumble vs. the Rockets.

Three years ago, Kansas dashed the hopes of a Toledo team that came to Lawrence looking to knock off a Big 12 team at home by routing the Rockets 63-14.

But the sequel was nothing like the original. Last year’s game looked like two teams that were interested in everything but winning the ball game, with Toledo winning on a Friday night at the Glass Bowl 37-31 in double overtime.

Who knows what will happen for the third version. While some of the faces on the Toledo side are the same as they were last year, most are different. Through the first two games, 35 freshmen and sophomores saw playing time for the Rockets.

But the Rockets aren’t just young, they are walking wounded. Four starters, including three defensive All-MAC candidates in defensive end Sean Williamson, free safety Tyrrell Herbert and cornerback Nigel Morris, will likely miss the game due to injury. Those three had 85 career starts between them. Starting offensive tackle Jan Gewont was lost for the season with a knee injury against Purdue.

Still, even without those players, Toledo was tied with Central Michigan 31-31 heading into the fourth quarter of last week’s game. The Rockets put up 482 yards of total offense in the game, which saw the Chippewas pull away late.

A big part of that effort was quarterback Aaron Opelt, who passed for 344 yards and two touchdowns against CMU. Opelt (6-foot-2 222 pounds) also has some mobility – he rushed for more than 250 yards last year despite starting just six games as a true freshman. He may not be the only quarterback to see time, as Clint Cochran may also take some snaps.

The running game is spearheaded by Jalen Parmele, who boasts a great size (6-2 221) with great speed (4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash). He rushed for 1,170 yards last year, and has 159 through two games this year, along with a touchdown. Kansas fans may remember Parmele as the running back who dashed 25 yards to paydirt to win last year’s heartbreaker.

The receivers are tall – out of the wideouts Toledo trots out for four-wide receiver sets, three are 6-4 or taller. The group is led by Stephen Williams (6-5 197), who had six catches for 157 yards against CMU, and had another 74-yard touchdown catch called back for a holding penalty. Nick Moore (6-4 188) is another nice target. He threw a 47-yard touchdown on a trick play last week.

Toledo has earned national attention for their use of the tight end, and this year is no different. Chris Hopkins (6-5 255) earned All-MAC honors last year after catching 54 passes including seven touchdowns.

Toledo has a large offensive line, but the pieces have been shuffled around. Three starters changed between the Purdue and CMU games. Four of the five projected starters tip the scales at more than 300 pounds, with only 272-pound center Buster Garrett bucking the trend. Tackle John Greco (6-5 325) is a two-time All-MAC selection and a Lombardi candidate.

Toledo’s defensive line has been the root of many of its struggles defensively. The Rockets only have three tackles for loss through two games. Skylaar Constant (6-4 270) takes over for Williamson at defensive end. At the other end will be Douglas Westbrook (6-3 228). Tyree Pollard (6-3 301) and Maurice Hill (6-2 282) are the defensive tackles.

The Rockets play a 4-2-5 defense and rotate several linebackers through the middle. The best of the bunch is Greg Hey (6-2 223), who leads the Rockets with 16 tackles this year. He’ll be joined by Keith Forestal (6-3 245).

Barry Church (6-2 212), one of the top strong safeties in the country, heads up a secondary that is missing two starters. Out of the 10 players listed on the two deep for the five defensive back spots, only one is older than a sophomore, and two of the starters are freshmen.

The Rockets have looked strong in the kicking game. Ray Guy nominee Brett Kern has punted for an average of 50.4 yards per punt, second in the nation, and hasn’t had a punt of under 44 yards. Kicker Alex Steigerwald has hit nine of 10 career field goals.

“Toledo” Tom Amstutz has won nearly 66 percent of his games since taking over the head coaching job in 2001. They’ve fallen on hard times of late though – the Rockets lost seven games last year and have had a rough start to 2007. A large part of that problem has been the fourth quarter. The Rockets have worn down late, giving up a 42-10 advantage in the final frame.

If the Rockets can stay in the game heading into the fourth quarter, and can avoid another meltdown, this could be a good one to watch.

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