Now that Northern Illinois is in its rearview mirror, everyone expects the University of Toledo football team to run the table, winning its final two games to finish 10-1.
But that's not the message veteran coach Gary Pinkel is sending to his team.
The Rockets are 8-1, 3-1 in the Mid-American Conference West division. They play Ball State (4-5, 2-2) Saturday afternoon at the Glass Bowl, then finish with a nationally televised game on ESPN2 with arch-rival Bowling Green Thanksgiving Eve.
Win both games and the Rockets could be headed for a postseason bowl game.
But, Pinkel cautions, any kind of slip-up would almost certainly keep Toledo home for the holidays.
“I think the more you win, then you look at the big picture - what kind of record we can have and what kind of team we can be,” Pinkel said yesterday.
“Then that's why this (Ball State) game has become so big. This game's as big as any we've played this year, in terms of where it can take us if we win.
“We don't know what's going to happen down the road in terms of possibilities or bowls, but the players do know that they can be 10-1. I think that they understand that something could happen in the next few weeks, but if we don't take care of business, it doesn't matter what happens. And that's what I've been telling these guys since Western Michigan.''
Western Michigan (8-1, 4-0 MAC West) handed the Rockets their only loss, 21-14 on Sept. 23. The Broncos can clinch their second West Division title Saturday with a road victory against hapless Central Michigan.
Western Michigan snapped Ball State's four-game winning streak - its longest since 1997 - this past weekend with a 42-3 thumping.
The Cardinals, who spent much of the 1990s in contention for MAC titles, had one of the worst teams in the nation the past two seasons when they went just 1-21.
They started this year by losing their first four games, then started winning after freshman quarterback Talmadge Hill became the starter.
Now, every Monday, David Letterman, a Ball State alum, shows game highlights, and every Friday he does a Cardinals preview on his late-night show on CBS.
“Ball State is a much-improved football team,” offensive tackle Jim Harding said.
“I know they are going to come in here and try to crush our hopes,” running back Chester Taylor said. “But we know if we stay together as a team, we'll be hard to beat.”
The Rockets, winners of five straight, will be forced to play the final two games minus sophomore starting tight end Greg Grothous, who will have season-ending surgery today to repair a broken fibula in his left leg.
Grothous had a career-high four receptions for 87 yards in Toledo's 38-24 victory over Northern Illinois on Saturday. He was injured in the third quarter after catching a 56-yard pass, his career long.
“Any time you lose a good player like that - and Greg Grothous had just gotten better and better, he had just made so many plays - it hurts,” Pinkel said.
Grothous had 10 receptions for 160 yards and three touchdowns in nine games.
“We were just starting to get him more involved with the passing game,” Pinkel said. “The good news for Greg is he's going to heal up fine and get ready for next year. He's got a phenomenal future.”
Pinkel said junior Jason Spiece (6-3, 230) will take over for Grothous as the starter, with freshman slotback Nate Jones (6-5, 250) assuming the backup role.
- RON MUSSELMAN
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