KALAMAZOO, Mich. - The University of Toledo built a 27-0 halftime lead yesterday against Western Michigan, and some of the Rockets players may have already began peeking ahead to next weekend's big showdown against Northern Illinois.
By the time UT's players finally regained their focus, Western Michigan had scored 21 points within a 10-minute span to pull within six points.
Toledo's third-quarter collapse drew the ire of coach Tom Amstutz, but the Rockets recovered from their coach's scolding in time to score two fourth-quarter touchdowns en route to a 42-21 victory over the Broncos before 9,844 fans in Waldo Stadium.
“I was ready to take my coat off and start fighting [after the third quarter],” Amstutz said. “It was time to start coaching. We had to do something to get the momentum turned around. I appealed to the senior leadership. I told them, `If I'm going to go out, I'm going to go out swinging.'”
Tailback Trinity Dawson scored on a 13-yard run and quarterback Brian Jones scrambled 36 yards for another score and ran for a two-point conversion in the final 15 minutes as the Rockets (7-3, 5-1 MAC West) beat Western Michigan (3-8, 2-5) for the 12th time in 14 meetings.
“We were fortunate to get the momentum changed back,” said Amstutz, who improved to 17-5 as the Rockets' coach. “I've seen games where it doesn't change back.”
Defending MAC champion Toledo had 466 yards of total offense and 25 first downs to Western Michigan's 227 yards and 10 first downs. But the Rockets had six fumbles, losing one, and one blocked punt. Those two third-quarter miscues helped set up two Broncos touchdowns.
“Toledo dominated the play for a majority of the game,” said WMU coach Gary Darnell, who is 1-5 against the Rockets. “We had them on their heels for a little bit, but that was about it. They are a very good football team, and as a result, are in the hunt for the MAC West title.”
West Division leader Northern Illinois (8-3, 7-0), which plays host to Toledo on Saturday, clinched at least a share of the division title yesterday with its seventh consecutive victory, a 49-21 thrashing of Eastern Michigan.
However, the Rockets have won eight consecutive games against the Huskies, including three straight in DeKalb, Ill. NIU's last win in the series was a 39-27 victory in DeKalb in 1989, when it was still a Division I-A independent.
“Right now, they're the hottest team in the league,” Amstutz said. “All the momentum is in their favor. They are playing on their home field for a championship game. We'll have their best effort.
“We'll have to have the best game we've played all year long to have a chance to be in the game.”
Jones, who led the nation in completion percentage at 70.9 percent entering yesterday's game, completed 25 of 35 passes for 207 yards and two touchdowns against the Broncos. He also was the team's top rusher for the second time in three games, finishing with eight carries for 94 yards and one touchdown.
Jones put Toledo up 17-0 in the second quarter, accounting for 61 of 86 yards on the drive with his legs. He pulled off a career-long run of 52 yards on a third-and-four play and then picked up nine more yards on a draw to the 3.
On the next play, Jones hit tight end Andrew Clarke with a three-yard scoring pass. All five of Clarke's career-high five touchdown passes have come in the past five games.
Jones also tossed a 27-yard scoring pass in the first quarter to receiver Carl Ford on a bubble screen.
“We had a good first half and then they surged and made a run at us, but we were able to get it back together in time for the win,” Jones said.
Dont Greene returned a punt 73 yards for UT's other score and kicker Jason Robbins made field goals of 33 and 30 yards. He also booted four extra points, including a 35-yarder after a penalty. Robbins has made 14 consecutive kicks in the past two games - nine extra points and five field goals - after missing seven conversions and three three-pointers in the first seven games.
“The hypnotist we took him to did a great job,” Amstutz said, laughing. “Kicking many times is a mental thing and he seems to be going down the right road. And I'm proud of him.”