Toledo's Rockets traveled 2 ½ hours to Kalamazoo to take on the Western Michigan Broncos Saturday. The Rockets started strong, but sputtered to another loss in a season that has seen so many. So where did this one go?
While trying to avoid being a Monday Morning Quarterback (especially since so many others know more about the game), I've decided this was a game that deserved comment. While forced to listen to the first half on the radio from work and watching on tv for the 2nd half, I heard and saw what could best be described as a capsule of the entire season wrapped up in the WMU game. This game had everything that's been good, and bad, with the Rockets all season long.
Toledo's longest play of the game came on their first offensive play, a 45 strike from Aaron Opelt to Stephen Williams to the WMU 30 yard line. The Rockets couldn't move the ball from there and turned the ball over on downs at the WMU 29.
Enter Toledo's defense, looking like they meant to control the game from the start. Toledo held the Broncos without a first down until their 3rd possession of the game, but stiffened once again to force a punt.
In between, the Rockets mounted a 9 play, 77 yard drive capped by a 27 yard Opelt-to-Williams touchdown pass to take a 7-0 lead.
On their first drive of the 2nd quarter, the Broncos had first-and-goal at the UT 9, but had to settle for a field goal. At this point, the defense looked to be in control, but there were warning signs starting to crop up. The Toledo offense had sputtered on its last drive, Bill Claus's punt only went to midfield, and the Broncos moved on the short field for their first points of the game.
Kicker Alex Steigerwald missed a 42 yard field goal attempt in the stiff wind, and the teams traded punts until 1:12 remained in the first half. Western had used 2 of its time outs on Toledo's last possession of the half, and capitalized with an 80 yard scoring drive fueled by the passing of Tim Hiller to take a 10-7 lead into halftime.
The Rockets held a 12 minute advantage in time of possession on the half, and had moved the football relatively well, but found themselves trailing at the half. Timely miscues reared their ugly heads once again, with UT being flagged for penalties twice on WMUs field goal drive, a personal foul on Archie Donald and pass interference on Barry Church. The Rockets had also been whistled for a personal foul after a nice Nick Moore punt return.
One could see glimpses of everything right, and wrong, with Toledo in the opening half – erratic special teams play, costly penalties, big offensive plays, big defensive stops, and costly lapses. Momentum seemed to be shifting to Western Michigan, and the 80 yard drive to end the 1st half sealed it.
The Broncos came out for the 2nd half and returned the opening kickoff to the Toledo 45, then proceeded to cover the distance with 8 plays that chewed up almost 5 minutes, resulting in an 11-yard Hiller to Nunez pass to stretch the lead to 17-7.
On the ensuing possession, DaJuane Collins broke a huge run only to have the ball punched out and recovered by Western at its own 43. Once again, the short field resulted in a Western TD, and the Rockets trailed 20-7.
The wheels were falling off, but the Rockets came back with a 14 play, 77 drive of their own. The problem with this drive? It chewed up over 7 minutes of valuable clock and only resulted in a field goal after having 1st and goal at the Western 8.
Toledo trailed 20-10 early in the 4th quarter, and possessions were becoming more valuable. And the defense was giving up bigger gains and longer drives as the game wore on. Western answered Toledo's drive with one of their own. The Rockets kicked off and the Bronco's Dervon Wallace dropped the ball at the 8 yard line, yet managed to pick it up and return it to the 17. Nine plays later, Western scored yet again on a 10 yard Hiller-to-Stevens pass and time was running out to make up the deficit.
Toledo needed 3 scores to tie or go ahead, and there was only 10:27 left to do it. Western dropped from their 8-or-9 in the box defense into deep pass coverage, and Toledo was forced to take the little shots and hope for big gains after the catch, which didn't happen.
Aaron Opelt snuck in from the one for Toledo's last touchdown with just under 4 minutes to go. Naturally, UT attempted an onside kick, which Western recovered at the UT 35. All that was left was for Western to gain a first down or two and run out the clock, which they did, ending the game at 27-17.
Throughout the 2nd half, I was struck by the number of times Toledo ran the football while Western stacked the line with 8 and 9 defenders.
The first quarter touchdown pass to Stephens a beautiful play-action pass, set up by 3 straight running plays by Morgan Williams, including a 17 yarder. On that drive, the Rockets had Western's defense guessing, mixing up their plays and executing well. It would be probably their best drive of the game.
Defensively, the Rockets were solid early, sending the Broncos' potent offense to the bench quickly, and the Rocket offense was doing a pretty good job of working WMUs defense with sustained, though scoreless, drives. The Rockets held the ball for 10 minutes of the 1st quarter and one had to think that the Western defense would be very tired by the middle of the 3rd. It never came to that. The Broncos' offense settled down and got comfortable, their defense was getting more confident as it continued to shut down Toledo's running game, and the Rockets' mistakes began to pile up.
This season has been a puzzle to everyone involved – the fans, the coaches, the players. I can't profess to know what the problem(s) is/are, but I've noticed one thing that has been missing for awhile now: a killer instinct. It appears that Toledo is focused on being methodical and following their game plan more than they are focused on winning. Let me explain, using the early part of the game as an example. Toledo scores on its 2nd possession and the offense looks pretty solid.
Meanwhile, the defense is shutting down one of the best offenses in the MAC. But instead of coming out and pouring it on immediately, the Rockets settle into their regular offense, running twice for total of one yard, then throwing incomplete on 4th down. I hate to second-guess the coaches. They know a hell of a lot more about football than I ever will. But "giving the players a chance to win" is more than just going for it on 4th down (successfully, for the most part). It's turning them loose and calling plays that give them a shot to blow it open too. It's getting away from some of the things that opponents' defenses figured out how to cover 3 years ago and doing something different. You certainly want to see the Rockets playing like they are "taking care of business", but this approach, this year, has killed them. In the game against Eastern Michigan, the Rockets started slow, but came out in the 2nd half and just poured it on. They had an early 10-0 lead on Florida International and went to sleep. Apparently it all came to easily. The killer instinct to put them away wasn't there. And I would argue that that game did more to destroy the Rockets' season than any other. I'm hoping for a resurgence next Friday against Miami, and a solid performance against rival Bowling Green the following week to end the season, but there is just no telling which Rocket team shows up, and stays, for either game.
UT/WMU Game Recap
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