This fall the Rockets will embark on their most demanding out-of-conference schedule in decades if not in the history of University of Toledo football.
For starters, three of the four teams played in bowl games last year. Only Purdue failed to qualify for post season play but consider four of their seven losses were by seven points or less and one of their five wins was over Ohio State.
So let's begin with the Boilermakers. RB Ralph Bolden, who had a breakout game against the Rockets in last year's opener, torn his ACL March 31 and is doubtful for the season. The running backs competing for the starting slot are all inexperienced and have been injured during spring practices. They should be ready for the fall but with only two veteran offensive linemen returning, the rushing game is a question mark at this time.
Recovered from an ACL tear last year is Miami transfer Robert Marve who played QB for the Hurricanes as a freshman in 2008. He was "Mr. Football" in the state of Florida in 2007 and is projected to battle for starting position against sophomore Caleb TerBush who had a strong spring. Either QB will a have a deep and excellent receiving corps to throw to led by WR Kevin Smith who topped the Big Ten with 91 receptions. There's more. Senior tight ends Kyle Adams and Jeff Lindsay will add to the passing and rushing game.
The defense for the Black and Gold begins with Ryan Kerrigan one of the top DEs in the nation – he was second team All-American last year. The Boilermakers hope to be stronger against the run with all three LBs returning. The real question is how with an entirely new starting secondary perform?
The kicking game is solid if not spectacular. Carson Wiggs could handle all the kicking chores adding punting to his list. He hit a career long 59 yarder against the Rockets last year. The loss of returner Aaron Valentin leaves a huge hole. Kick-off and punt coverage was inconsistent last year and is currently a work in progress.
The Wyoming Cowboys are looking for a leg up to remain high in the saddle. In coach Dave Christensen's first season the ‘Pokes capped a 6-6 regular season with a double OT win over Fresno State in the New Mexico Bowl much to the surprise of Pat Hill . . . and this with a freshman QB.
The offense and defense were both inconsistent but they peaked at the end of the season winning three of their final four games. The offense averaged less than 19 points per game over the season putting them near the bottom in scoring, total offense and passing. The standout WR is David Leonard who averaged 9.2 yard per catch on 77 receptions. Add the defensive scheme change to a 4-3 to the loss of three D-line starters and the inconsistencies could continue in the early fall. One place that is solid is the Cowboy's secondary which may be the very best in the MWC. The defensive backfield is led by FS Chris Prosinski, a candidate for Defensive POY in the MWC, and Freshman All-American SS Shamiel Gary. The Gipson brothers, Marcell and Tashaun, are quality CBs.
Wyoming special teams are solid to excellent with the exception of spotty kick-off coverage. The Cowboys ranked 15th in the nation in net punting behind the Austin McCoy's 43.3 yards per punt.
A major key to the Cowboys' 2009 success was their ability to generate turnovers ranking 17th in the nation. This year Coach Christensen is looking to expand the offensive play book for sophomore QB Austyn Carta-Samuels, the 2009 Freshman of the Year in the MWC.
The Arizona Wildcats came within a whisker of beating Oregon and a trip to the Rose Bowl losing in double OT. They did earn a berth in the Holiday Bowl where they were dominated by Nebraska 33-0.
I'm guessing the Wildcats are coming into this year focused on winning and not even remembering how to spell Cornhusker. They will remember beating USC for the first time in nine years.
The huge upside to this team is its offense led by junior QB Nick Foles who completed 63.6% of his passes throwing for 19 TD with only 9 INTs. He has a stable of excellent wide receivers along with running backs with good hands. They mix in the run with the play option passing game with the likes of RB Nic Grigsby, who make a big splash in his debut against the Rockets two years ago. A slightly smaller version of Grigsby is Keola Antolin. Both are fast and shifty runners who finish their runs going downhill. They have the benefit of a very good and very large veteran OL led by a standout center Colin Baxter.
The defensive challenge is replacing all three starting line backers and both defensive tackles. Up front the D's strength is in the DEs. Coach Mike Stoops has unveiled his new "Cheetah" package, the formation features defensive ends at all four defensive line positions and, depending on the situation, either five or six defensive backs. The aim, as the name indicates, is speed rushing the opposing QB while disrupting the running game. What the ‘Cats lack in defensive experience they are looking to make up for with speed and athleticism.
The kicking game for the Wildcats is one of nation's best. And their return game is excellent averaging 17.5 yards per punt return and 25+ yards on kickoff returns.
And then there are the Boise State Broncos. They are ranked from anywhere from number 6 to number 2 in the nation in pre-season polls. And why not? The Broncos are locked, loaded and aiming for the BCS Championship game. QB Moore is a bonafied Heisman Trophy finalist. Phil Steele has a Bronco at virtually every pre-season All-WAC position (1st – 4th) with the majority being first teamers.
Weaknesses? Travel to away games requires multiple connections to anywhere from Boise. Oh, they will also be playing on new Blue turf this year but I don't see them stumbling too much on the new surface.
An old sports saying is that you get better playing against good teams. If so, the Rockets will have ample opportunity to get better with this year's OOC line up. RocketNation fans will see quality football players in opposition jerseys whether on the road or in the Glass Bowl.
OOC Season Sampler
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