Thoughts and Observations

This season has been a roller coaster ride for Rocket fans, players, and coaches. The players, by all accounts, have worked hard throughout the off-season and in practices since the season began. A poor performance in the season opener was followed by a blowout win in horrible weather at EMU and then a tough loss at home against Fresno State. Then things have seemed to fall apart.

This season has been a roller coaster ride for Rocket fans, players, and coaches. The players, by all accounts, have worked hard throughout the off-season and in practices since the season began. A poor performance in the season opener was followed by a blowout win in horrible weather in Ypsilanti over the Eagles of EMU. Then the home opener against a ranked Fresno State team that Toledo took to double overtime before succumbing by a point, 55-54.

In spite of the loss, the Rockets had a lot to be happy with from that game. They knew they played well enough to win if they just made one or two more plays, one or two fewer mental errors early in the game. Recall the screen pass call on the Rockets' first possession that was thrown behind receiver Nick Moore. He couldn't handle it, and it fell to the turf. It was apparent that this was not intended to be a lateral, but a true screen. It was just poorly thrown. Then, the senior co-captain, who should know to play to the whistle, calmly began to walk away from the ball laying on the field. Only one of three FSU defenders realized that play was still alive, scooped up the ball, and took it in untouched for a touchdown. One mental breakdown.

Throughout the first quarter, Toledo struggled with penalties on offense, repeatedly taking hard-won yardage away. But the defense snapped up the helmets, the offense calmed down, and the next thing you know, we have a ball game. Even down 10 points with under 7 minutes to go, the Rockets didn't give up on either side of the ball. They executed their offense almost to perfection to force the tie in regulation.

As high as that game had Rocket fans, they've been reduced to deeper lows. Problems that were evident against Fresno recurred with a vengeance the following two weeks. To name a few:

- Aaron Opelt has not thrown the ball particularly well this year. In fall preseason practices, he looked in mid-season form. But since the season began, his throws have lacked the accuracy to which he was accustomed. Balls were being thrown too short, too long, too high, too low, too late. The last two weeks, these issues have gotten worse instead of better. One would think that the addition to the staff of a quarterbacks coach would help in Opelt's development, and early on he and Amstutz both said it was helping his confidence. That seems to be gone at this point. Aaron seems to be trying to THINK every play, instead of act and react. He appears to be second-guessing his own play while it's unfolding.

- The receiving corps was touted as among the best in the league, if not the country, at least by the Rocket faithful. There have indeed been flashes of brilliance, but there have also been tragic miscues that have killed drives and momentum. In 2006, the Rockets had big issues with dropped balls, but that seemed to improve in 2007. The bugaboo is back in 2008, however, and were glaring in the losses of the last 2 weeks. Seems the receivers are trying to make the big play to help their team, making the big catch and gain, but turning their eyes off the ball before they secure it.

- Special teams has been atrocious, especially in kickoff coverage. Saturday night, you could add blocking when receiving kickoffs to the list. On one kick in the 3rd quarter, the entire Rocket team turned and ran back to the ball before turning around to make a block.

By then, the BSU defenders were all over the ball. The Rockets have not pressured a single punt this season, allowing the opponent to kick at their leisure. Nick Moore, while sure handed on punt receptions generally, has almost no return yards on the year, calling for the fair catch nearly every punt. Sometimes it's obvious that is the proper thing to do. There are others, like one Saturday, when it was, in my opinion, a mistake. Back around his own 30 yard line, Moore signaled the fair catch, running toward the sideline to field the ball. It looked from above like he had room to make the catch and turn upfield for a little yardage. On another, he signaled the fair catch and no one reached him until he began to turn to hand the ball to the official.

I don't know, obviously, if this is what the coaches are asking him to do, or if he is making these calls himself. Regardless, Toledo needs to begin getting some return yardage on their punts. The Rockets have a mere 5 punt returns for a net 39 yards on the year.

- Offensive line play has been very inconsistent, and as the line goes, so goes the offense. The graduation of 3 starters from last year was cause for concern, but had been largely overlooked coming into the year. The FIU and BSU defenses obviously found a weakness there that they could exploit.

- Coaching has been a real mixed bag. As the defensive coordinator, Amstutz was known for making great adjustments when something wasn't working. Saturday night, the adjustments, if made, seldom worked. One exception: early in the game, Toledo defensive backs were doing what we've grown accustomed to seeing them do for years now; lining up as if they were going to jam the receiver, then dropping back 7-10 yards just before the snap, leaving 7-8 yards slants over the middle and outs to the sidelines wide open. The DB then rushes up to make the stop, but the damage is done. The opponent throws that little pass on first down and it's now 2nd and 2 or 3, allowing them full use of their playbook and the defense left to try to guess what's coming.

In the second quarter against BSU, the DBs started staying up on their man, and the result was fewer quick hits, and no touchdown passes for the prolific Nate Davis. Of course, that takes the DBs out of run support early in the play, but should that be their job?

- The Rockets aren't taking care of the football, fumbling 9 times and losing 6 of those and having thrown 3 interceptions this year. The 3 ints aren't a bad number, they just seem to have all come at the worst times and have generally been the result of an underthrown ball, or a ball thrown into double coverage or both.

Offensively, the play calling has just been baffling. All season, it seems we try to rely on YAC for a first down on 3rd and long. Instead of receivers running to or beyond the first down markers, we're consistently throwing short passes leaving several yards to be made up after the catch. Defenses are closing on these and we're left to punt. Or, as was the case Saturday too often, we seem to concede the defensive stop and run the ball for little or no gain. Toledo is a dismal 36% on 3rd down conversions on the year, and 44% on 4th down. Meanwhile, their opponents are 40% and 100% respectively.

The Rockets intended to "establish the run to set up our offense," as Coach Amstutz put it. Seeing that the running game wasn't going anywhere with 8 men in the box, there was no real change in strategy that I could see. We did throw the ball more, but it was the type of throw that, defensively, is little more than a pitchout and run play. The spread offense that used to give Amstutz fits as a defensive coordinator is not spreading the field, rendering it a shadow of its former self.



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