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Published: Tuesday, 11/11/2003

It s put-up or shut-up time for UT defense

Tom Amstutz is pretty nimble for his size, but big guys don t always dance well. So given the opportunity to dance around the question, or over it or through it, the University of Toledo s football coach simply chose to sit it out.

He shifted his weight, scrunched his face, took a big breath and then blew it out before saying, “I m not going to talk about that kind of stuff.

OK. But we will.

The question at yesterday s weekly press session went like this: How frustrating is it for you, as a former defensive coordinator, as the architect of some awfully good defenses at UT, to see that become a soft spot on your teams since you ve been the head coach?

It was neither an impolite nor invalid question.

But coaches don t like to be challenged and, to be fair, this particular question put Amstutz in an awkward position.

He knows how good UT s defense has been through the years. He knows that in seven years as the coordinator his teams allowed more than 23 points a game in just one season. He remembers his final year in that position, 2000, when the Rockets surrendered a mere 125 points in 11 games, an average of 11.4 points per outing.

He also knows that anything he might say would reflect on his hand-picked coordinator, Lou West, a bright guy with an arsenal of credentials. So Amstutz opted to say nothing.

Facts are facts. The Rockets gave up 24.8 points per game in 2001, 27 points an outing last season and have seen opponents score at a 23-point clip through nine games this year.

The real problem, trend-wise, has been late-season collapses. In 2001, UT surrendered 108 points in its last three games (a 36.0 average); in 02 it was 154 points in the final four games (38.5). Toledo, 25-10 overall under Amstutz, went 4-3 in those seven contests.

This seems to again be an issue in 2003. The Rockets recently gave up 38 points in a loss at Ball State and followed that by watching a bad Buffalo team score 26 points. In one half. At the Glass Bowl.

The Buffalo game came down to Bruce Gradkowski setting a school record with six touchdown passes and UT setting a standard with 685 yards of total offense.

In other words, you can play over defensive breakdowns and simply outpoint teams like Buffalo.

It might not work against Northern Illinois, Western Michigan or Bowling Green. Those teams make up the stretch run of UT s schedule. Two of them, NIU and BG, are top-25 teams with high-powered offenses and defenses that rank ahead of UT s in key Mid-American Conference statistics.

Northern Illinois comes to town Saturday for a MAC West showdown and brings with it the explosive Michael Turner, who leads the league with a 130.5-yard rushing average.

He is nicknamed The Burner and Amstutz knows his defense can t afford to be too badly burned.

“We don t want to be blocking dummies for them, he said. “Our defense knows we re facing a great running back. We need to be great tacklers.

Granted, it isn t as easy to play good defense as it used to be. Spread offenses sap the aggressiveness from a defense. Even a less sophisticated offense like Northern Illinois is a challenge to stop because of the play-action passing attack that Turner s presence makes so effective. But the name of the game is still pressure - UT ranks last in the MAC with just nine sacks - and tackling.

The Rockets had a bye this past weekend and Amstutz took advantage to get in a little hunting. A day trip into the wild with Amstutz was auctioned off for charity so last Friday he and the winning bidder roamed the woods at a hunt club near Clyde and the coach came home with 20 pheasants.

Down the road, Amstutz and his staff and their families will have a pheasant cook-off competition and party. Some 60 birds were dressed and served at a similar gathering a year ago.

“We do it after the season, he said. “Hopefully, it ll be after a bowl game.

Perhaps UT s coach is sensitive to questions about his defense because he knows that despite its problems, the Rockets have captured MAC West titles, played in conference championship games and received bowl bids in each of his two previous seasons as head coach. And he knows the Rockets can achieve all those things in 2003, as well, if they string three more wins to the finish line.

Maybe the old bromide that offense wins games and defense wins championships no longer rings quite so true.

“All I know is we ve won two championships and are trying for a third, Amstutz said. “This is the kind of situation, the kind of pressure you like. It s exciting when winning one game makes the next one mean even more.

That excitement figures to play out only if the UT defense shows that it saved its best for last this time and bags a few birds of its own down the stretch.

Contact Dave Hackenberg at dhack@theblade.com



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