Rockets Slog Over EMU, Turn Attention to FSU

Toledo beat Eastern Michigan 41-17 last Saturday in a game that was played in a heavy downpour. However, it wasn't very long after the post-game press conference that Rocket players were asking what the score of the Fresno State game was. The Rockets seem to be focused on avenging the 44-14 loss at Fresno State back in 2005.

The game was over, with the Rockets slogging to a 41-17 blasting of Eastern Michigan. The post-game press conference had just wrapped up when an unidentified UT player asked if I knew the score of the Fresno State game. I apologized for not knowing yet. Obviously, neither of us knew that it was a late game Saturday night, too late to even make the Sunday paper here in Toledo. But it spoke volumes about the focus of the Rockets. Their "24 hour rule", the one that lets them celebrate a win or mourn a loss for 24 hours before refocusing for the next game, was more like a 24 minute rule in this case. The Eagles behind them, the Rockets were turning their attention immediately to the home opener against #25 Fresno State this coming Saturday in the Glass Bowl.

The sounds of celebration coming from the visiting locker room were deafening, even over the sound of the idling team equipment truck just outside the door. The Rockets had won their first MAC game of the year, and their first MAC road win in almost 2 years. They had a lot to celebrate. Fighting through a downpour for 3 hours, the Midnight Blue & Gold pounded the ball on the ground, passed enough to keep the defense honest, and swarmed to the football on defense. Aaron Opelt called it "our first championship game" and was happy with the game plan and the execution. All the players felt that the weather was "really no big deal", even though they haven't really been able to practice in rain. RB Dejuane Collins said "it was a little difficult to secure the ball at first", but after a few early miscues, it seemed everyone adjusted to the conditions. Collins ran for a career-high 168 yards. Coach told the running backs before the game that they "were going to have to win the game today", and the Rockets hitched their wagon to Collins for a huge first win.

Defensively, Coach Amstutz said earlier in the week that Toledo was going to have to focus on slowing down Eastern's running game, no small task when looking back at the last two seasons, or looking at an opponent with a running back averaging over 100 yds per game, and a quarterback who is their #2 rusher. But slow them down is definitely what they did.

Combined with a number of unforced Eagle errors, including numerous bad snaps while in the shotgun, the Rocket defense frustrated the Eagles at every turn. Archie Donald came up with Toledo's first two interceptions of the season. The DEs and OLBs didn't let the running game get to the outside, the DL made penetration. Overall, it was a very solid defensive game by a rejuvenated unit that was much maligned coming into the season. Defenders simply swarmed to the ball throughout the game.

On Toledo's first possession following an EMU 3-and-out, the Rockets needed only 3 plays, a 14 yard run by Collins, a 39 yard Opelt-to-Moore pass, and a 19 yard scamper by Collins to put their first points on the board. The 72 yard drive took only 55 seconds, and one had to wonder if the defense was going to have to be on the field most of the game.

Indeed, a flurry of turnovers followed, with neither team's offense staying on the field for more than 5 plays until the end of the 1st quarter. Fortunately for the Rockets, the Eagles were not only having trouble holding onto the ball, but their punter was having his own struggles.

After a first possession punt of 45 yards, EMU had 3 punts of less than 20 yards each, giving the Rockets a short field repeatedly. Toledo managed to capitalize only once more on a DaJuane Collins 4 yard run, set up by Derrick Summers 51 yard fumble return to the EMU one yard line. (Archie Donald said in the post game that nobody was giving him a hard time, just trying to keep him up after getting his feet tangled up and falling. Once the game was over however, a few of his teammates have razzed him a bit about the play).

Eastern put up a 9 play, 47 yard drive midway through the 2nd quarter to close the gap to 14-7, and the 1st half scoring was over. Eastern ended the half at the Toledo 38 with another fumble as time ran out.

Toledo opened the 2nd half with a big return from Greg Harris to the Eastern 40 yard line, and followed with a 6-play drive that only took 1:58 off the clock. The drive included a halfback pass from Collins to Nick Moore in the endzone on 2nd and 10 from the 29, but pass interference prevented the TD until 2 plays later, when Opelt connected with Robin Bailey for his first career TD, a 14 yard pass and catch.

The drive set the tone for the 3rd quarter, as UT would score touchdowns on each of their first three possessions, and four of five, while holding EMU scoreless, with only one first down. Eastern finished out the game's scoring with a 30 yard field goal on their opening drive of the 4th quarter.

At the weekly media session on Monday afternoon, the players and Coach Amstutz were very happy with their performance for the day. Stutz said last week that they wanted to contain the Eastern running game, and they did. The players wanted to focus on taking care of the ball and filling their assignments, and they did. None of them felt the rain was a huge factor, though one has to wonder how that can be. As Amstutz said in his post-game interviews, he wasn't going to blame the rain for anything that didn't go the way he wanted; both teams had to play in it. He went so far as to joke that he thought he should have just gone duck hunting.

Amstutz said this was a very important game, getting the Rockets to 1-0 in MAC play. The coach felt the game plan wasn't changed too much, allowing that they probably did run a little more than they planned originally. He credited Collins with a lot of broken tackles and getting some tough yards on his own. Collins, like any good running back, credited everyone but himself with his success on the day, the OLine, the tight ends holding their blocks, the passing game keeping the defense honest.

One of the beneficiaries of the blow-out win was sophomore Chris Faison, who caught the attention of the crowd with a monstrous hit in the 4th quarter at the Toledo 7 yard line, following a Dontayo Gage 17 yard reception. He followed with a pass interference call at the 2 yard line, giving Eastern the ball 1st and goal at the 2. Faison then made up for the miscue with a 4 yard tackle for loss on Eastern's Blevins. Two plays later, Eastern put up its final points of the day.

It was only Faison's 2nd time getting to play, and he's very excited to be facing Fresno next week. He said the team is coming together really well and they're very happy to get that first win under their belt. "We're definitely going to have to bring our A game, and we know they will, cuz they're Fresno State." Asked about the 24 hour rule, he said "we have to. It can be like that sometimes. You have to be thinking of the next game if you want to turn it around, coming off a rough season." On the rain, he echoed Archie Donald when he said "I LOVE playing in the rain."

Regarding containing the Eastern running game, he said "they have some big backs, we let ‘em off a couple times, but the coaches stressed they can run the ball, they have some good athletes, so we just made it a priority to cut ‘em off as much as we could." On Fresno, Faison said they look like a good power running team, so we're gonna have to bring our guys up front, we have a good defensive line, so we're going to have to bring as much pressure as we can."

Chris is something of an "old man" for a sophomore. He redshirted his freshman year in 2005, played sparingly in 2006, and received a medical hardship in 2007, so he's a 4th year soph. Asked if that was an advantage for him, he said it's been a good thing for him, giving him a chance to get used to college life and college course work. The time must have paid off, as Chris is majoring in finance and has "been on the Dean's List four times consecutively, and I have a pretty decent GPA. I've just been working hard."

Passing the football was at a premium Saturday, but Opelt made a lot of hay with the few completions he had. Aaron was only 1-7 with an INT in the 1st half, but that lone completion setup a touchdown on the next play. His numbers were a little better in the 2nd half, finishing 8-18-1, with 3 TDs. "Yeah, we'll take that any day of the week!", he laughed.

"We're definitely excited about Fresno State coming in. They're a good team, they're fast, they're good. I'm sure we're going to have a good game plan ready. They're a very disciplined team, we're going to get our game plan going, and I think we're going to have a good chance. We're going to take some good things away from the Eastern game, the momentum, and take that into Fresno. I think we corrected a lot of things from Arizona, and we have some more things to correct this week, and we'll get to work on that."

Archie Donald had a big day for the Blue and Gold, bagging two interceptions. "It was the right position, just staying with the quarterback and trying to make some plays." Donald said "Fresno's a big, fast team. We're going to have to come out here and buckle down and really play ball." He wouldn't compare Fresno to Arizona, but as with AZ, he said "their offensive line is big, and their running backs fast, so we're going to have to hit and take them to the ground, make some big plays out there. Everybody's got to fly to the ball."

Coach Amstutz said the coaches "didn't talk about the rain, the players just went out and played football." One of the differences in the approach by UT and EMU in their offenses was their set-up. Opelt spent nearly the entire game under center, while Eastern's two QBs were often in the shotgun. It was apparent that the shotgun approach was a problem, with several unforced errors on the snap leading to Eastern losses or fumbles. Coach Amstutz said "we can do either one, and in conditions like that, it's a great advantage to have an offense that can do either one. I think they had more trouble with the snaps than we did, and I think that helped us early in the game."

Amstutz also credited the offensive line with another solid performance, pointing out that "Aaron wasn't sacked in the game, he did one great play there to avoid a sack and threw a touchdown pass, but they protected him and gave our backs a chance to run the ball."

Regarding Fresno, he said "They're a very good team, very physical. Their defense is outstanding. They look like a Top 25 team on film. They run the ball as well as anyone. I was shocked how they just pounded the ball, ran right through Rutgers. They're a real good football team. They played play-for-play with Wisconsin. They have a big 6'5" quarterback who can throw the ball, they have skilled receivers, so they're a team that can do anything. It's going to be a tough challenge, but it's a great opportunity, and I want our stands to be filled with fans. We always love to play in the Glass Bowl. Home opener feels great."

As mentioned earlier, DaJuane Collins, in the understatement of the day, said "it was a little bit wet out there, but we knew ball security was going to be a big issue, so we just tried to keep it high and tight. The offensive line did a great job blocking, the tight ends had the back side cut off all day, and the receivers did a good job of occupying their corners, leaving us one-on-one with their safeties. You can't have a running game without everyone participating.

We woke up in the morning and it was a drizzle, but we got to the stadium and it just started to come down. Coach Heddin came to the offense and looked at the running backs and said ‘you guys are going to have to win this game for us', so we knew we were going to have to step up to get a victory."

DaJuane is averaging 7.7 yards per carry on the year after a monster performance on Saturday. He said "Our goal is to average 4 yards per carry. Personally, my goal is to score every time I get the ball. Being realistic, I know that's not going to happen, but as long as we keep our offense in good situations, 2nd and 5, 2nd and 6, I know we're going to be good."

On the D.J. Summers fumble recovery to the EUMU 1 yard line, DaJuane laughed and said he thanked him for giving him another touchdown.

On Fresno, Collins offered that "they're big and fast, and they WILL hit you. We're going to have to come out in all phases of the game and be real good. I think special teams is going to win this game for us. Our offense and our defense are going to have some good plays and some bad plays, but special teams is going to win this game. If we have good kickoff coverage, good kickoff returns, good punting and punt returns, I think we have a chance to win this game."

It was noted that the Rockets haven't returned a punt this season, and at least for the Eastern game, that was by design. The coaching staff didn't want the players taking any unnecessary chances, but rather just secure the ball. As for it being the first home game of the season, DaJuane was right there with everyone else: "It's going to be great. Playing on the new field, playing in front of a stadium of your hometown fans, just lining up at the gate, seeing the band lined up, the cheerleaders, the fire extinguishers going off…it's going to be real good."

The new field "helps prevent injuries, prevents turf burns, it's real good. It's like playing on concrete and going to grass." Asked what we are looking for this Saturday, Collins quickly answered "We're looking for a win".

Nuff said.

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