For the third time in four games this year, the University of Toledo's defense is preparing to face a 1,000-yard rusher from last season.
The 25th-ranked Rockets limited the first two - Minnesota's Tellis Redmon and Temple's Tanardo Sharps - to a combined 75 yards on 23 carries (3.3 average) and one touchdown.
UT is hoping for similar results tomorrow night at the Glass Bowl against Thomas Hammock, a talented junior tailback from Northern Illinois.
Hammock, 5-8 and 214 pounds, has rushed for 100 yards or more in a school-record eight straight games. In seven of those he has gained at least 143 yards.
“He is a real good back,” UT outside linebacker Sid Daniels said. “I watched film of him this week and he's getting better. He's a hard runner. We're just going to have to make sure we wrap him up when we tackle him.”
Hammock trails UT's Chester Taylor by nine yards - 449 to 440 - in the Mid-American Conference rushing race. Taylor is ranked eighth nationally, averaging 149.7 yards per game; Hammock ninth at 146.7.
“I don't know of two better tailbacks in this league,” NIU coach Joe Novak said.
Hammock first caught the attention of UT coach Tom Amstutz last season when Amstutz was the Rockets' defensive coordinator.
Hammock torched Toledo for 160 yards on 26 carries and two touchdowns before suffering a season-ending broken ankle early in the third quarter. UT scored the final 17 points in that game for a 38-24 road win as Taylor finished with a career-high 230 yards on 30 carries, and two touchdowns.
In nine games last year, Hammock had 1,083 yards on 215 carries. He led the MAC in scoring with 96 points, scoring 16 touchdowns. Hammock and Taylor were both first-team All-MAC picks.
“Hammock is a real tough guy, a real competitor,” Amstutz said. “He can break a game wide open. He runs very hard and has a low-center of gravity. He definitely has our respect and attention.”
Redmon and Sharps also had UT's attention the first two games.
Redmon, who gained 1,368 yards last season, was held to 68 yards on 11 carries (6.2 average) and one touchdown. The score was set up by a turnover and came midway through the fourth quarter with UT leading 31-0.
Sharps, who managed 1,038 yards a year ago, was limited to only seven yards on 12 carries, an 0.6 average.
It's no wonder the Rockets (3-0, 1-0 MAC West) are ranked ninth in the country in run defense, allowing only 64.7 yards per game. Opponents are averaging 2.1 yards per rush against their attacking 4-4 defense.
“It all starts up front,” Daniels said. “The defensive line is doing a great job of taking on blocks and getting rid of them. It makes our jobs easier as linebackers when the defensive line is dominating.”
Amstutz and first-year defensive coordinator Lou West have overloaded the line of scrimmage with defenders when facing better-than-average running backs.
Look for UT to use a similar strategy against Hammock, who has managed 177, 111 and 152 yards in three non-conference games - NIU is 2-1 - although he is missing three key linemen from last year who combined for 106 career starts.
“We put a bunch of guys in the box and try to outnumber the other team on the line of scrimmage,” Amstutz said. “That makes it difficult for the other team to block us and makes it easier to stop the run.
“We can't let up. We have to keep pressure on Northern Illinois. If we don't, Hammock will break some big runs against us.”
QUICK HITS: UT quarterback Tavares Bolden is the MAC's second-highest-rated passer - he's ranked 18th nationally - with a 143.0 efficiency rating. He is completing 62.5 percent of his passes (45 of 72) and has accounted for a combined 646 yards passing and rushing. ... The Rockets have scored 123 points and allowed 42. ... UT's defense has forced nine turnovers in three games - five interceptions and four fumble recoveries. The Rockets also have eight sacks. ... Toledo has won 10 of its last 11 MAC games. ... NIU quarterback Chris Finlen passed for a season-best 279 yards last week in a 41-16 win against Sam Houston State. He also tossed three touchdown passes, tying a career high.
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