Normally, Phil Alexander would be in the Virgin Islands this weekend with the rest of his University of Toledo basketball teammates, who are playing in the season-opening Paradise Jam tournament.
But when the Rockets departed early this morning for St. Thomas, Alexander wasn't even awake.
Instead of having some fun in the sun Saturday, he will be in chilly DeKalb, Ill., where the defending Mid-American Conference football champion Rockets (7-3, 5-1) will battle Northern Illinois (8-3, 7-0) in a key West Division showdown.
With a victory, streaking Northern Illinois would clinch the division crown outright and a berth in the MAC championship game.
Meanwhile, the Rockets need to beat NIU and Bowling Green the following week to secure a share of the West crown and a return trip to the conference title game.
“I have already gotten a bunch of calls from my basketball teammates this week, saying they wish I could be there with them in the Virgin Islands,'' Alexander said. “I am expecting a lot more calls, a lot more ribbing, once they get there.
“I can't afford to think about basketball right now - that's not really that important. Right now it's all about football with me. We have a lot at stake this weekend. Plus, I've got a [MAC championship] ring and they don't. I want another one. That's my only focus.''
Alexander, a backup end who was named the MAC West Division defensive player of the week on Monday, plans to join the basketball team after the football season ends.
As a freshman forward, he averaged 2.6 points and 2.1 rebounds in 18 games after joining the basketball team as a walk-on in January.
“He has no choice this weekend - he's going to be playing football and using his football scholarship,'' UT coach Tom Amstutz said.
Alexander is one of three Toledo players from Illinois. He is from Chicago Heights, starting tight end Andrew Clarke is from Naperville, and backup tight end Chris Holmes is from Chicago.
“We're pretty much all from the same area, so it's like a homecoming for us, “ Alexander said.
Alexander, a 6-3, 235-pound sophomore, started the first three games, but has since been replaced by freshman Anthony Jordan.
Alexander has 20 tackles, including seven for losses, is tied for the team lead with three sacks, and has one interception. He also has broken up six passes and has four quarterback hurries.
Clarke has five touchdown catches in the last five games and 28 receptions overall, and Holmes has 14 catches and one score for the Rockets, who own an eight-game winning streak over the Huskies.
“Phil Alexander has really come on, especially this last half of the season,'' Amstutz said. “He's blocked a lot of passes, he's been real active and he's been playing hard. He looks like a defensive end now and he's doing a good job for us.''
Northern Illinois carries a seven-game winning streak into Saturday's game, including a 5-0 mark at home.
The winning streak is the Huskies' longest since joining Division I-A in 1968, and the program's best run since an 11-game winning streak during the 1964 and '65 seasons.
“Right now they're riding a real high,'' Alexander said. “They are undefeated in the MAC, which is very hard to do. They definitely have the momentum in their favor, so we've got to go in there and play hard and try to beat them.''
The last time the Rockets played at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb, on Nov. 4, 2000, they trailed the Huskies 24-21 late in the first half before regaining a 28-24 lead at the intermission.
Toledo cornerback Brandon Hefflin intercepted a pass in the end zone midway through the third quarter with Toledo clinging to its four-point lead. The Rockets then outscored the Huskies 10-0 in the fourth quarter for a 38-24 win.
“Two years ago when we went out there, they should have beaten us,'' senior inside linebacker David Gardner said. “We were fortunate to come out of there with a win. It wasn't until the fourth quarter that we won it.
“I think it's going to be the same way this Saturday. I think it's going to come down to who plays all four quarters and who is the best finisher at the end of the game.''