The University of Toledo opened the football season 0-3.
The offense had been hit-and-miss. The defense was pretty much no-hit and all-miss.
So the Rockets were welcomed back to the Glass Bowl last night with a banner hanging from the first row of seats that said, "No Excuses, The Winning Starts Now."
And it did. Remarkably, it did.
Maybe there will be some buzz about the UT program now. Maybe they'll be talking about the Rockets in the men's grill at the country club or in downtown restaurants during business lunches, in barbershops, and around bridge tables. Maybe.
There were, perhaps, 15,000 folks in the stadium last night, and, until the end, it was a quiet 15,000. If I had a dollar for every time the public address announcer begged, "C'mon Rocket fans, make some noise," I would have retired at halftime, and you wouldn't be subject to reading this.
But it was noisy at the end. It was downright deafening, in fact, for Iowa State, a team that one week earlier had stunned the cornbelt with a last-second victory over rival Iowa.
The Rockets, trailing 35-24 with barely more than five minutes to play, got an electrifying 82-yard kickoff return for a touchdown from Jalen Parmele, then another TD when Greg Hay recovered a fumbled punt snap in the end zone, and then survived a last-second field goal try when Hay may have gotten a fingertip on the ball to further discourage a low, wobbly attempt from 38 yards with 14 seconds left. Toledo 36, Iowa State 35.
Western Michigan, another team that struggled in the early going only to get its first win last night, comes to town Saturday, and maybe the Glass Bowl will be packed and the crowd will be rockin' and rollin'. It will be a must-win game for the Rockets, already 0-1 in Mid-American Conference play, if the rest of the season is to be truly meaningful.
All that was meaningful late last night was that the Rockets are not 0-4 for the first time since the 1978 season. And, come to think of it, that's pretty meaningful.
The Winning Starts Now, so the banner said.
It also said something about excuses and, to the credit of UT, there has been none of that, even if it would have been understandable.
The defense, thin to begin with because of some preseason losses, has been decimated by injuries. A freshman who walked on when practice began a couple months ago - Myshan Pettis from Rogers High - was a starting cornerback last night for the third straight game. Heck, he's a wizened veteran by now. And he played like one, picking off an underthrown pass inside the UT 20 to end an early Iowa State drive.
The numbers are so bad at safety, where UT has been relying on Barry Church and a prayer, that Hay, himself knocked out of a game a week earlier, moved from linebacker to a safety position that UT calls a rover.
There isn't enough space to go through all the names and numbers, nor the heroes, on this patchwork defense. But the Rockets, who surrendered a total of 149 points and an average of 502 yards per game during the 0-3 start, played far better than that last night and overcame a couple short-field situations late in the game.
Church had an astonishing 19 tackle participations. Hay was all over the field with 11 tackles to go with his other heroics. Cornerback Walter Atkins had 14 stops and a huge sack on the third-down play that set up the punt that the Cyclones botched.
"Barry Church made play after play," said UT coach Tom Amstutz. "The whole defense stepped up and showed how much heart they really have in them."
The offense wasn't as spectacular, but quarterback Aaron Opelt was efficient and receiver Stephen Williams showed big-play capability. Parmele, for some reason, got only six second-half carries at tailback but cemented himself in the kickoff return role.
But this was a night for UT's defense to redeem itself. It was a night for special teams, also a weakness during the 0-3 skid, to make a huge difference.
It was, remarkably, a night for the winning to start.
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