Toledo Tom To Bring Rocket-Men To Huntington

The Thundering Herd will have a short week to get ready for one of it's most fierce Mid-American Conference rivalry games. The Toledo Rockets come to Huntington for a Friday Night, ESPN game at Marshall University Stadium that will kickoff at 7:00 p.m. Marshall and Toledo have met every year since the Herd re-entered the MAC in 1997, but most of the time a league championship has been on the line, as it was in the last meeting, 49-45, last December.

Marshall and Toledo first met in the 1938 season, a 13-7 Rocket win in Toledo, Ohio. The teams began a regular series in 1954, when MU joined the MAC for the first time, and played every year but two from 1954-82. Since the series resumed in 1997, Marshall is 4-2 against the Rockets, winning the MAC titles from Toledo in Huntington in 1997, 1998 and 2002. Marshall also won at MU Stadium in 1999. Toledo has won both contests on its home field, a regular season shutout of Marshall in 2000, 42-0, and taking the only MAC crown not won by the Herd since 1997, beating Marshall 41-36 in 2001. Toledo leads the 40-game series 21-18-1, the closest MU is to .500 in a series against a MAC member from the 1950's.

Toledo is led by alumnus Tom Amstutz, "Toledo Tom," who played at UT from 1974-76 and has coached there every since, except for three years at Navy (1987-89). As the head coach in his third year, Amstutz is 20-8 with a MAC title in 2001 and bowl trips to the Motor City Bowl both years. He is 1-1 verses Bob Pruett.

Toledo lost, or blew depending who you ask, the opener at UNLV, 28-18. UT led 18-14 with less than six minutes to play when the Rebels' tight end, Greg Estandia, put up two scores in 27-seconds to steal the game out and under from the stunned Rockets. Although they trailed 14-12 at half, UT rover Paul Dye had scored on an 80-yard fumble return to give Toledo what appeared to be a victory. UNLV struck at the 5:52 mark to go up 21-18 and then the Rockets fumbled on the first play after the kickoff.

This past week, the Rockets righted the ship with a resounding 49-3 win over I-AA weakling Liberty in the Glass Bowl's home opener. In front of 22,878 (including an all-time Toledo high of 10,784 season tickets sold) in the opener, the offense worked out game one frustrations against the Flames.

Toledo is being led by a new starting quarterback, sophomore Bruce Gradkowski (6-2, 210). Gradkowski is a first-year starter after appearing in every game in 2002 as the holder for extra-points and field goals. Through two games, the sophomore has hit on 28 of 43 pass attempts with no interceptions. Gradkowski set a new completion percentage record (.875) in the Liberty game, missing only two passes in 14 attempts. He has five touchdowns and 374 yards passing so far. Backing him up is another unproven QB, junior Cedric Stevens (6-4, 225).

At running back, the three "Baby Backs," who all played as freshmen and combined for 1,700 rushing yards, return older and stronger. Starter Trinity Dawson (5-10, 195), who leads the team with 88 yards rushing through two games, Quinton Broussard (5-9, 200) and Astin Martin (5-8, 177) all have returned to give UT one of the best backfields in the nation. Dawson led the three and Toledo with 754 yards on the ground and 12 touchdowns.

Also back, giving the backs a quality line to run behind, is All-MAC selection and possible All-American candidate Nick Kaczur (6-5, 305) at left tackle. He has started every game for two seasons as a frosh and sophomore, although he is one of Toledo's oldest players at age 24 (having played in Canada, then taking a year off before entering Toledo). Massive Erik Faasen (6-8, 358), also is an All-MAC caliber right tackle, returns for his senior season. The third returning starter is left guard Darric Randolph (6-4, 328), also a senior. In fact, throw in starters at right guard, senior Tim Dirkson (6-4, 295) and starting center, junior Dave Odenthal (6-2, 299), Toledo is the fourth largest starting offensive line in the nation. The Rockets tip the scales at an average of 315.8 pounds, according to Toledo sports information department and a University of Houston SID survey. MU's OL averages about 6-4, 313 pounds, according to the five starters listed on the two-deep, good for seventh largest line (although no one believes Toby Bullock is only 330 pounds, as listed, and Nate Griffin may go better than the listed 334).

Toledo, despite the great running game that has featured the " Baby Backs" and fromer Rocket, now NFL player, Chester Taylor, likes to spread out the defense with four wide receivers much of the time, or three with tight end Andrew Clarke (6-4, 249 junior). Starters include junior Terrance Hudson (6-1, 184), who had eight catches for 108 yards and a touchdown last year. The other receivers are junior Lance Moore (5-11, 184), who is the leader among returning receivers with 23 receptions for 309 yards and two scores, and red-shirt freshman Steve Odom (5-10, 165). Odom had two scores of 24 and 49 verses Liberty among four receptions for 108 yards, while Moore turned in a 54-yard punt return for touchdown along with a 20-yard touchdown run to go along with four catches for 58 yards. Hudson had only one catch for two yards but backup receivers while number four receiver Kenley Horton had three for 20 yards. The tight end Clarke has three touchdowns in two games, including a 20-yard score against Liberty, and caught 37 balls for 407 yards and seven scores in 2002.

Coming up next, a look at the defensive side of the Toledo: rebuilding the Rocket stoppers.

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