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Published: Sunday, 9/21/2003

UT, MAC get boost of self-esteem

There's no need to spin this story. The good news speaks for itself.

Toledo 35, Pittsburgh 31.

This was the powerful message the Rockets sent last night in front of 31,711 fans at the Glass Bowl:

Give the mid-majors the respect they deserve.

That's all UT and Marshall and Northern Illinois ever wanted. The Mid-American Conference just wants to be treated fairly. UT expected to be competitive this season. We had a right to expect the Rockets to contend for the MAC title.

But no one - and I mean no one - expected this. No one thought the Rockets would bounce back from a season-opening loss to Nevada Las Vegas and rally from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to whip No. 9 Pittsburgh - the highest-ranked team ever to visit Toledo.

Well, someone did.

“We knew it was going to be a tough game. We knew they were a talented team. But we also knew we had a chance to win,” UT coach Tom Amstutz said. “We talked about setting an ambush for the No. 9 team in our stadium. We talked about how it was an opportunity. It's a chance to let your players line up against one of the top teams in the country and compete their hearts out.”

We now have every right to wonder just how good the unranked, 3-1 Rockets really are.

The forecast for Toledo-Pittsburgh was partly cloudy based on, yes, the status of the two teams, combined with the fact Pitt plays in a more prestigious conference, has a substantially larger athletic budget and recruits more talented players.

For those who think there's a lot of difference between major and mid-major conferences, it's comforting to convince yourself that size means everything, bigger is better.

So it goes when the Rockets are compared with a BCS team like Pittsburgh.

Short of beating Pittsburgh head-to-head, there is no way for UT, or the next mid-major, or the one after the next, to shake the perception that the BCS vs. non-BCS debate will ever be anything more than hot air.

If non-BCS schools want to play in the biggest bowl games at the end of the season, they have to prove they can win the biggest games in the regular season.

It doesn't get any bigger than Sept. 20, 2003. Yesterday was a monumental day in the history of the MAC. Marshall upset No. 6 Kansas State, a week after losing to UT. Northern Illinois knocked off No. 21 Alabama. The Rockets rallied to stun Pittsburgh in the nightcap.

If you made the mistake of not attending last night's game, you won't believe what you missed. UT fans celebrated by swarming the field and tearing down both goal posts.

No one seemed to mind.

In the end, the Rockets won because they were prepared for everything and they believed in Amstutz's system.

No UT quarterback ever had a better performance than the one Pittsburgh native Bruce Gradkowski put together against his hometown Panthers.

Gradkowski tossed three touchdown passes. A sophomore making his fourth start at UT, Gradkowski established a MAC record with 49 completions and he set school records with 62 pass attempts and 461 yards. He was 20 of 22 for 172 yards and the game-winning touchdown to Lance Moore (15 catches, 162 yards) in the fourth quarter.

Yes, the experts were all wrong about the MAC, which hasn't had a team ranked in the Top 25 all season. Pittsburgh (2-1) is nationally ranked. Where does that leave the Rockets?

“I think some of the teams in our conference better start moving up those polls,” Amstutz said. “Maybe the polls will start to reflect a little bit of that.”

Perceptions are difficult to change. At least they were until the Rockets played a game to remember last night.



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