Herd Insider's Fearless MAC Championship Preview

?The motto was simple last year for Marshall. With four straight Mid-American Conference championships, it was appropriate for the Thundering Herd to walk with the swagger that adopted the phrase "One for the Thumb." But there was one slight problem. The Toledo Rockets were hungry for a MAC title and a chance to avenge losses to the Herd in the championship games during the 1997 and 1998 seasons.

Everyone knows the tune to which the Herd would fall to the Rockets last season in Toledo. Marshall jumped out to a 23-0 first quarter lead, but couldn't hold on and would eventually lose 41-36.

Shortly after the game, Toledo head coach Tom Amstutz took a page from Bob Pruett's book from the previous four years.

"Anytime there is a championship on the line it is a big game," Amstutz said in a press conference after knocking off the Herd. "If you have warm-red blood pumping in your veins, you know what you are playing for is a championship. We are calling ourselves MAC Champions now."

It is that last phrase of being "MAC Champions now" that has the Marshall players aware of what is at stake for this championship game against the Rockets.

Toledo (9-3, 7-1 MAC) enters the game representing the MAC West Division after winning six of its final seven games to finish out the regular season. Last week's 42-24 victory over previously nationally- ranked Bowling Green clinched the title chance for the Rockets and will mark the third time they have traveled to Huntington to challenge Marshall for the conference championship.

Quarterback Tavares Bolden and running back Chester Taylor are gone from a year ago, but Toledo is not short on weapons.

Senior Brian Jones (6-2, 215) has stepped into the quarterback role for the Rockets this season and has performed more than admirably. The left-handed quarterback who hails from California has completed 247-of-346 passes for 2894 yards and 21 touchdowns in his first year of significant action at Toledo.

His quarterback rating of 158.2 is second in nation behind Brad Banks from Iowa. Marshall's Byron Leftwich is third on the list behind Jones with a rating of 157.3.

While Jones is more valuable when throwing the football, he possesses an ability to run and at times this season this has provided defensive coordinators with a major headache. He has eclipsed the 50-yard mark on the ground four times this season, with a high of 94 against Western Michigan.

On the year, Jones has 383 yards rushing and four touchdowns.

After the victory over Bowling Green, in which Jones threw three touchdown passes, Amstutz made it clear who the catalyst of the team was. "At the beginning of the season everybody underestimated Brian Jones--players, coaches and even Brian himself. He has done a tremendous job this season. He is our leader and quite a football player."

Seniors Carl Ford (6-1, 175) and Donta' Green (5-7, 182) have been the main beneficiary of Jones' passes this season. Ford enters the game with 900 yards on 64 catches and eight touchdowns. Green, who recently passed Mel Long as the school's all-time leading receptions leader, has 53 catches for 590 yards and one score on the year.

Tight end Andrew Clark (6-4, 243) has caught seven touchdown passes, two of which came against Bowling Green last week. The sophomore has 35 receptions for 392 yards this season.

The running attack for Toledo has been blessed with an offensive line that averages 320 pounds across. William Bratton started off the season, but fractured his ankle during the Miami (Ohio) game. His status was uncertain for the Bowling Green game and he did not play, so it is unclear if he will suit up against Marshall. On the year, Bratton has rushed for 639 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Replacing the injured tailback has been freshmen Astin Martin (5-8, 180) and Trinity Dawson (5-10, 180). Martin is the team's leading rusher with 679 yards and five touchdowns. Dawson has 596 yards and seven touchdowns, three of which came against Bowling Green. If Bratton can't go, look for Dawson and Martin to split time in the backfield.

As an offense, Toledo ranks fifth in the nation in total yards with 478.3 per game and No. 13 in scoring offense with 35.4 points per game. The Rockets average 223.4 yards on the ground and 254.9 yards through the air.

Linebackers Tom Ward (6-2, 242) and David Gardner (6-3, 240) are the play-makers on the defensive side of the ball for the Rockets. Ward, a senior from Defiance, Ohio, is the MAC's leading tackler with 157, an average of 13.1 per game. He tied a career high earlier in the season with 22 tackles against Ball State. Gardner is fourth in the MAC with an average of 11.6 tackles per game, with a total of 139 on the year.

The two seniors have started at the inside linebacker spot for the Rockets for the last two seasons.

Sophomore Brock Dodrill (6-2, 214) is the starting Whip in Toledo's 4-4 defense and he has recorded 73 stops on the year. Freshman Keon Jackson ( 5-11, 199) has stepped up into the Rover position and has 66 tackles and three interceptions.

Cornerback Brandon Hefflin (6-1, 170) has a team-high five interceptions, while recording 46 tackles.

Free safety Patrick Body moved over from the Rover position and has 69 tackles and two interceptions.

The defensive line has been led by juniors Frank Ofili (6-3, 261) and Lantz Jeudy (6-2, 285). Ofili, a defensive end, has 39 tackles and eight for loss. Juedy, a defensive tackle, has 35 stops with six being for loss.

Toledo's defense is third in the MAC by allowing only 345.9 yards per game and is first in the conference by giving up 23.2 points per game. Teams average 159.4 yards on the ground (8th in MAC) and 186.5 through the air (3rd in MAC) against the Rockets.

Redshirt freshman Jason Robbins is 11-of-14 on field goal attempts with a long of 37 yards. Jason Cox, also a freshman, is averaging 37 yards per punt.

Keys to the Game

1 – We Aren't The Champions. Marshall has won four of the past five MAC titles, but this year is different as the Herd is trying to regain the crown.
2 – Stop Jones. Brian Jones has been the key all year for Toledo. One of the running backs was quoted after the Bowling Green game as saying that teams were keying on stopping the run and that was a mistake because they should key on stopping the quarterback.
3 – Remember the Fake. Last year when Toledo's kicker Todd France ran a fake field goal in from 16 yards out to give the Rockets a huge momentum boost, it totally deflated the Herd. Trick plays like this could play a major factor in the outcome of this game.)

1 – We Are The Champions. (Toledo will already have its confidence riding high as they are the returning MAC champs. The Rockets hold that title until someone knocks them off. Marshall is hoping to be that someone. Toledo must use the confidence edge of being the "CHAMP" to its advantage.)
2 – Get to Leftwich. (It is no secret that Byron Leftwich is hurting, but the warrior plays on. His injured lower leg makes the not very mobile quarterback to begin with, less mobile. Toledo must get pressure on him and force him to make an adjustment in the pocket. This could result in a sack or a bad pass. In Toledo's case, they better hope for the sack, because the bad pass is few and far between.)
3 – Get the Run. (Marshall has been playing extremely well upfront these past few weeks. They held the nation's No. 4 ranked runner, Marcus Merriweather, to 87 yards. Without William Bratton, Toledo does not have a back with that type of talent. Astin Martin and Trinity Dawson have shown promise, but the freshmen are young and have not played in this type of a football game before. Saturday would be a great day for the two backs to grow up in a hurry.)

Matt's Fearless Herd Insider Prediction:
Marshall 35
Toledo 31

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