MORRISON / BLADE PHOTO Enlarge
Three months ago, it would have been highly presumptuous to even ask Bruce Gradkowski what he knew about the University of Toledo record book. His name wasn t in there - anywhere.
Before the Aug. 30 opener at Nevada-Las Vegas, Gradkowski had never started a game for the Rockets, and the 6-2, 210-pounder from Pittsburgh had completed just two passes in his UT career.
Then the season starts, the calendar flips, and the leaves change color, and all of a sudden Gradkowski has made a shambles of the UT record book, ruffled the pages of the Mid-American Conference records and pushed his name up with the national leaders in several categories.
Through nine games, Gradkowski has completed 218 of 306 passes for 2,500 yards and 22 touchdowns, with just four interceptions.
Gradkowski s 71.24 percent pass-completion rate leads the conference and is the third-best in the nation, trailing only Philip Rivers of North Carolina State (72.16) and Matt Schaub of Virginia (71.70). His 277.8 passing yards per game rank fifth in the MAC.
“I never thought about any of that stuff, and I still don t sit around and dwell on it,” Gradkowski said. “If you are doing your job as a quarterback, and you have good people around you, then the things like records will all take care of themselves. I really don t even think about it.”
At home at the Glass Bowl, where the Rockets (6-3, 4-1) will play host to No. 21 Northern Illinois (9-1, 5-1) at 3 p.m. Saturday in a crucial MAC West showdown, Gradkowski has been even better - almost unconscious.
In the four games the Rockets have played at home this season, Gradkowski has completed 109 of his 133 passing attempts for 1,435 yards. That is an off-the-charts 81.95 percent completion rate. He has thrown 15 touchdown passes at the Glass Bowl, and just one interception in those 133 passing attempts.
“His numbers at home are pretty amazing,” UT coach Tom Amstutz said, “but as a football player you should always be at your highest comfort level in your home stadium, playing in front of your team s fans. You want to see your offense run in an efficient manner all the time, but it should be especially effective at home, and for the most part we have been.”
In his last outing against Buffalo, Gradkowski set school and Glass Bowl records with six touchdown passes, and he completed a school-record 92 percent (23 of 25) of his passes. The MAC record for completion percentage in a game is 92.9 percent, set by Bowling Green s Ryan Henry when he went 13-of-14 against Akron in 1994. Jose Davis of Kent State holds the MAC mark with seven touchdown passes in a game, set in 1997.
“I m sure those guys were all great players, because the MAC has had more than its share of very good quarterbacks, and there are still a lot of great quarterbacks in this league, maybe more from top to bottom than any other conference in the country,” Gradkowski said.
“As a quarterback I know that when you have a big game and maybe tie a record or set a record, you know that record really belongs to a lot of other people, too. If I have some success, my offensive line and the rest of my teammates all share in that. Those things are not possible without the whole team creating the environment where a record can be broken.”
Gradkowski s 435 yards passing against Buffalo is second in Toledo history to the record 461 yards he threw for against Pittsburgh on Sept. 20. His 22 touchdown passes lead the MAC, and he also has the MAC s top passing efficiency rating at 161.0, ahead of the league s marquee quarterbacks such as Ben Roethlisberger of Miami and Josh Harris of Bowling Green.
“Bruce is a hard worker, and a very competitive guy,” UT junior wide receiver Lance Moore said. “He is as focused as anyone I have ever played with, and I think that has a lot to do with his passing numbers being so good. He gives every play, every throw, his maximum focus and effort.”
Gradkowski is the highest-rated sophomore quarterback in the country, ranking seventh overall nationally in passing efficiency, behind six seniors.
“I ve been fortunate to play with some great players and play in a great system,” he said. “This offense is designed to make you successful, if you work hard and play the way you are coached to play. I m not saying it s easy, because nothing is easy in football, but our offense gives you situations in which you can be successful.”
Since Toledo went to the spread offense in 2001, its first year under Amstutz, the Rockets have enjoyed the league s most efficient passing attack. Toledo s Brian Jones led the MAC and the nation last season with a league record 70.2 percent completion rate. The MAC record had been 68.7 percent, set by Toledo s Tavares Bolden in 2001.
“One of the main goals we have on offense is to be efficient,” Amstutz said, “and everything starts with the quarterback. If Bruce and the rest of the players are doing their jobs, we ll move the football and he will put up some pretty decent numbers. When we have done that this season, he has had big games and we came out on top on the scoreboard.”
With 2,500 passing yards, Gradkowski already owns the third-best season total in UT history. He needs 947 passing yards in the final three games, an average of 316 per game, to move ahead of record-holder Jones, who had 3,446 passing yards last season.
Chris Wallace (2,955) put up the second-highest single-season total in 1997, but Gradkowski seems certain to pass him. Jones achieved his numbers in 14 games last year, while Wallace played 12 in 1997. If the Rockets win the MAC West for a sixth time in the last seven years, Gradkowski could play as many as 14 games if UT also gets a bowl invitation.
“Distractions can hurt your focus and your concentration, so I ve tried not to think about anything other than the next game,” Gradkowski said. “Ever since I got here, I have just wanted to work hard and try and get better every single day.
UT ALL-TIME PASSING-YARDAGE GAMES:
Player (Year) Opponent&tab; Yards
1. Bruce Gradkowski (2003) vs. Pittsburgh - 461
2. Bruce Gradkowski (2003) vs. Buffalo - 435
3. Jim Kelso (1982) vs. Wisconsin - 382
4. Chuck Ealey (1971) vs. Western Michigan - 381
5. Tavares Bolden (2001) vs. Ohio - 374
UT PASS COMPLETION RECORDS (SEASON):
Player (Year)&tab; Pct.
Bruce Gradkowski (2003, through 9 games) - 71.2
1. Brian Jones (2002) - 70.2*
2. Tavares Bolden (2001) - 67.1
3. Lee Pete (1947) - 65.2
4. Gene Swick (1974) - 62.0
5. Gene Swick (1975) - 61.6