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Published: Friday, 11/15/2013

SPORTS COMMENTARY

Rockets now desperate for defense

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

On the surface, surrendering 31 points — just 31 points — at Northern Illinois late last season was a step up for the University of Toledo’s defense.

Well, yes and no.

It’s true that the Huskies had roughed up the Rockets for 65 and 63 points in the previous two seasons. There was no repeat of that scoreboard silliness in 2012.

But it was a deceptive 31 points that NIU laid on Toledo during a 31-24 victory, the Huskies’ third straight in the series.

UT led 14-7 at the half before Northern scored 24 unanswered points, including 21 in the third quarter on a mind-boggling 347 yards of offense.

The Huskies scored on drives of 73, 99, and 97 yards and, if memory serves, never had to convert a third-down play.

Toledo defensive end Jayrone Elliott, a senior, has been around for all of that, the scores in the 60s and the single-quarter yardage total that represented the wrong kind of school record.

“Yes, sir,” Elliott said when asked if the memories were still fresh as a just-picked scab. “Personally, it’s embarrassing.”

Elliott thought the Rocket defense tackled and communicated better a year ago than in the first two meetings, but he knows that when push came to shove, UT got shoved around pretty easily.

Speaking of fresh memories, Toledo saw a 38-0 third-quarter lead against Buffalo nearly disappear in Tuesday night’s 51-41 win. The visiting Bulls marched up and down the field to the tune of 470 yards in the second half.

Not to be an apologist, but with a 31-0 halftime lead it was fairly predictable that UT’s defense would lose some of its edge during the break.

Still, with NIU on the horizon, it wasn’t good timing for a defensive slip-n-slide.

The Huskies visit the Glass Bowl on Wednesday night for a nationally televised game and, as usual, the Mid-American Conference West title will be up for grabs. Toledo’s defense hopes nothing else is as usual.

“It is the elite team in our conference right now, the last two or three years, and they have certainly presented some problems for us,” UT coach Matt Campbell said.

Elliott, one of the nation’s leaders in sacks and tackles-for-losses, cheered for NIU last January when the Huskies played in the BCS Orange Bowl, and he was rooting for them this past Wednesday night, too, as the Huskies turned back Ball State 48-27.

The Rockets lost at Ball State in September, and a different result in the NIU-BSU game would have eliminated Toledo from title contention.

But Elliott is done supporting the Huskies. He hopes.

“Jordan Lynch is a great player, one of the toughest I’ve seen,” Elliott said of the NIU quarterback. “He did the things [Wednesday] night that he does every game. I’m glad he got the job done. Now we have to do our jobs.”

And while that job is easy to identify, it is easier said than done.

Lynch leads the MAC in total offense, having rushed for 1,273 yards and thrown for 2,216 yards. It adds up to 35 touchdowns for a team that has won 23 straight conference games.

“We’ve got to do a great job of tackling,” Campbell said. “Whether you’re talking about Lynch or any of his receivers, there have been a lot of missed tackles.

“Lynch is such a great competitor. He makes things happen when really there’s not a lot there.”

In fact, if Lynch breaks tackles against UT the way he did on a couple seemingly sure sacks by Ball State, it will be a long night for the Rockets.

Against Buffalo, it was just a long half, and Toledo had built enough of a cushion to survive.

Campbell’s first phone conversation Wednesday morning was with Larry Kehres, his college coach at Mount Union, who had watched the Buffalo game on TV.

“He said, ‘It’s funny what a desperate team can look like.’ ” Campbell said.

UT had emphasized stopping the run, then faced nothing but passes and had its defensive game plan flipped, allowing the desperate Bulls to rally.

Against Lynch, the run-pass maestro, the Rockets will have to be ready to stop both, and Campbell will hope his defense doesn’t get flipped up and down the field.

Next week, Toledo will be the desperate team; Desperate with a capital ‘D’ for some D.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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