NIU Thoughts

About 10:30 on October 10th, Barry Church stood shell-shocked and embarrassed in front of a quiet room of reporters to answer their muted questions about what had just happened to the Toledo Rockets. Church offered no excuses and vowed that Rocket fans would never see that again this year. That kind of determination helped Toledo beat NIU 20-19 Saturday night.

About 10:30 on October 10th, Barry Church stood shell-shocked and embarrassed in front of a quiet room of reporters to answer their muted questions about what had just happened to the Toledo Rockets. Church offered no excuses, saying only that the Western Michigan Broncos came out fired up and UT lacked the necessary intensity. Then he offered a vow: that Rocket fans would never see that again this year.

Fast forward to 10:30 on October 17 and a smiling Barry Church is in front of a more engaged room full of reporters talking about his teammates, the film they studied, and the strides they took in the preceding week. Church had a lot to smile about, both personally and as one member of the team. Statistically, Church had 12 tackles, 2nd on the team behind LB Archie Donald's 13 and one better than Beau Brudzinski's 11. This reporter is unable to come up with the last time a UT team blocked a kick of any kind, much less 2 in one game, and forget about the same guy doing it both times. Of course Church gave credit to the coaching staff for seeing the possibility in game film and preparing the team for the possibility, and to Maurice Hill for taking on the opposing guard and keeping him off Church, allowing him to go up the middle untouched on both plays.

While Church's play and leadership are a big part of the story from Saturday night, they are only a part of it. Donald has been a quiet, steady force throughout the season, leading the team in tackles in 2009, averaging 10.5 per game coming into the Northern game. Saturday, Donald was anything but quiet. His inspired play was matched by his vocal leadership on the sidelines. Beau Brudzinski is right behind Donald and Church in leading the team in tackles this season. His senior season is seeing Brudzinski taking a much more productive role in the Rocket defense. The defense in general, played inspired on Saturday night, perhaps more than we've seen in several seasons. The coach gives all the credit to the senior leadership, and watching it during the game, one would have to agree.

Statistically, this was one of the closest games Toledo has played all year, as the score would indicate. By anyone's prognostication, the Rockets should have been big underdogs, and were not favored to win this game. They faced a Huskie defense that was very stingy against the run. Their offense was the best rushing offense in the conference, playing well to UTs glaring weakness. UT was starting a true freshman at QB in place of starter Aaron Opelt, who is out with a shoulder injury. The UT defense has been porous much of the season, and special teams have only had moments when they looked solid. UT was destroyed the previous week by a team that lost 38-3 to their upcoming opponent. So what allowed the Rockets to be successful on this night?

When Coach Beckman began his post-game comments following the WMU disaster, he talked about challenging the staff and all the players to look in the mirror and find what needed to be done to fix what had just gone wrong. Following the win Saturday, he credited the seniors for their leadership. I would suggest that it is Beckman's leadership that got the ball rolling in the right direction. He leaned on his staff, then leaned on his seniors to force a team gut-check. The response was greater than anyone could have expected. While the Rockets gave up 9 tackles for loss, including 2 sacks, the running game, led by senior DaJuan Collins' 139 net yards, was the best it's been in weeks. Collins' long run of 69 yards was brought about by excellent run blocking up front; he said the holes were so big he could have just picked one and got good yardage, and that's how it looked from the stands. There's room for improvement there, of course, but the run-blocking of the offensive line was much better than it has been. Additionally, the Rockets realized that the running game had to try to lighten the load on freshman QB Austin Danton and allow him to play within himself.

Defensively, the Rockets gave up 164 net yards rushing and 154 passing. Those numbers are 24.8 and 180 yards, respectively, below their average this season. This coming against the MACs best rushing offense is no small feat and the credit should be passed around generously. Defensive linemen were involved in 11 tackles, while the corners only had to account for 6.

Special teams play was perhaps the best it has been all year as well. While Toledo's average punt was not as long as NIUs, their net yards was better at 37.7 per punt, vs. 34.4 for NIU. The Rockets also did a bit better in kickoff returns than the Huskies, and Alex Steigerwald put one kickoff into the endzone for a touchback, one of the few he's accomplished. It could not have come at a better time as the Rockets had just scored the go-ahead touchdown with 7:03 left in the game. Not allowing a return was crucial at that time, and proved its worth when the Rockets got the defensive stop to force a Huskie punt 2:07 later. The Rockets couldn't do anything with the ensuing possession and punted to give NIU one last chance, but Church's last minute heroics sealed the win.

There were certainly "teachable moments" in the game, ones that the coaching staff will no doubt address in the coming days. While great improvement was evident in most areas, there was a bit of good fortune involved as well. In the early going NIUs QB Chandler Harnish missed a couple of wide open receivers that could have made quite a difference in field position, if not score, for instance. The Rockets were better in the penalty department by a long shot, but untimely ones in the 2nd half could have changed the outcome of the game. That the Rockets played over those errors to win is a credit to them and their coaches. The challenge that remains for this team is to prove that they can bring that same intensity to every game.

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