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Ball St N Illinois Football Northern Illinois wide receiver Da'Ron Brown, left, celebrates with Juwan Brescacin after a touchdown reception against Ball State last week.
Northern Illinois wide receiver Da'Ron Brown, left, celebrates with Juwan Brescacin after a touchdown reception against Ball State last week.
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Published: Tuesday, 11/19/2013

SPORTS COMMENTARY

Weekday kickoff loses some luster

Middle-of-week kick-offs not good for players, students, fans.

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

The guy with temporary custody of this strip of type has railed often against weeknight college football games through the years.

They are bad for families and students and, based on the timing of their appearance on the schedule, when it’s dark by dinner and bone-chilling by kickoff, bad for all fans except those sitting in their fair-weather family rooms watching on television.

College football wasn’t invented for Tuesday or Wednesday nights in November, but Toledo fans will get a second straight dose of it tonight as part of the Mid-American Conference’s late-season deal with ESPN.

Last week, on Tuesday, the Rockets hosted Buffalo, then the undefeated leader of the MAC East, which brought a seven-game winning streak to the Glass Bowl against UT, winner of six of its last seven.

That was a pretty good match-up, but the announced attendance of 15,036 was in reality more like the 8,527 announced the same night 25 miles south where Bowling Green played, and won, an important MAC East game against Ohio.

Toledo took its game last week, too, making tonight’s visit by 10-0 Northern Illinois a must-win for both teams in a battle for the MAC West crown.

A week ago, I sat with UT athletic director Mike O’Brien in the press box about an hour before kickoff chatting about a variety of subjects.

“I know how it’s going to look,” O’Brien said, staring out at a near-empty stadium as a handful of cars trickled into sparsely-populated parking lots. “But these games have some benefits.”

We presume one of them is financial, although we’re not nearly talking Big Ten or Southeastern Conference-like financial. The other benefits, according to O’Brien, are solidifying a relationship with ESPN and recruiting.

“When our coaches go into a living room in Florida or Georgia or wherever, the kids and their families already know who Toledo is and are familiar with our program,” O’Brien said. “And in large part that’s because of these TV games.”

True, those recruits see the Rockets on TV. They sometimes see large swaths of empty seats in the background, too. I’m not sure how the latter message resonates.

In the near future, UT will play early-season home games against Missouri, Iowa State, Fresno State, Tulsa, and Miami (Fla.) and O’Brien fully expects some or all of those games to be televised thanks to the relationship Toledo and the MAC have forged with ESPN.

They are all valid arguments. With the proliferation of college football, especially on cable networks, just about every league and every decent team is on TV. Because no one was clamoring for its product, the MAC had to think outside the box and this weeknight package with ESPN allows the league to keep pace.

That it is being done at the expense of home fans that have to work the next morning or families with school-age kids, or students who take their book-learnin’ seriously is, I guess, too bad.

It will be especially too bad tonight because I presume every Rocket fan worth his or her salt would want to be at the Glass Bowl for kickoff just past 8 p.m.

It is the No. 15-ranked team in the nation, according to the BCS standings, against a Toledo team that is 7-3 with five straight wins. It is the first MAC team to ever beat two Big Ten teams in the same season against the first MAC team to ever lose to two SEC teams in the same season.

In comparing those opposing leagues and teams, I’m not sure the two Northern Illinois’ wins are much more impressive than UT’s two losses.

The Rockets are underdogs for good reasons. NIU has the league’s best offense and offensive player in quarterback Jordan Lynch and a 23-game conference winning streak.

Can UT overcome all that? Perhaps. It will take the best defensive effort of the season, which could be aided by an equally-good offensive performance. Keeping Lynch off the field would help considerably.

Toledo excels at running the ball, with or without star back David Fluellen, whose availability will again be a game-time decision, but will be going against NIU’s league-best rushing defense.

That puts the Rockets’ offensive line under the gun and makes standout center Zac Kerin, guards Greg Mancz and Jeff Myers, and tackles Josh Hendershot and Chase Nelson the most important men on the field for UT. They have been stout all season and will have to be just as spectacular tonight.

It should be great theater, either in person or, sigh, in your family room.

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



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