It was hot and getting hotter about a month ago when the University of Toledo football team was knocked for a loop by very one-sided losses to Minnesota and Kansas, but the term that kept coming up was cold - things had "snowballed."
The Rockets (3-2, 2-0) felt both games had gotten away from them early, and then rapidly spiraled out of control. UT's defense gave up 63 points in each of those first two games.
"And we've spent the last few weeks trying to push that snowball back up the hill," said UT junior linebacker Anthony Jordan. "Those games were bad experiences for us, and there was kind of a helpless feeling like we couldn't do anything to stop it. But everybody hung in there and kept working, and things are turning around for us."
In the first three games of the season, which included a 42-32 win over Eastern Michigan, the Toledo defense gave up 21 touchdowns. In the past two games, wins over Temple and Ball State, the Rocket defense has allowed just three touchdowns.
"You can see it on the scoreboard, and in the way we're playing," Jordan said. "It seemed like we were just hanging on before, but now we're making plays on defense. We worked hard to get ready for the season, but after that rough start, we just committed ourselves to work even harder on every play, in every practice. I think we've seen the results of that hard work the last couple of weeks."
After giving up 704 total yards to Minnesota, and 501 yards to Kansas, the Rockets have been reeling in the opposing offenses, and allowed Ball State less than 300 total yards last Saturday in a 52-14 rout over the Cardinals.
Jordan acknowledged that part of the improvement might be due to a change in the level of competition, but he also thinks growth is a big factor.
The Rockets have been young - 11 true freshmen and eight redshirt freshmen have played through the first five games. And three freshmen - linemen Tyree Pollard and Alfred Martin and cornerback Nigel Morris - are starters on defense. Six more freshmen are playing regularly in back-up roles on defense.
"There were some mistakes in the first few games that were probably due to inexperience," Jordan said, "but we're five games into the season now, so these guys are not really freshmen any more. We've seen them learn and improve and they're starting to make plays. I think we just had to go through a maturation process."
Jordan, a captain for the Rockets who is a candidate for the Butkus Award that goes to the nation's top linebacker, was fifth in the MAC in tackles last year with 138. UT head coach Tom Amstutz said he credits Jordan and the other UT veteran players with holding the group together during the difficult start.
"I think the leadership on this team has been the difference," Amstutz said. "They went through some adversity to start the season, but the leaders on this team would not allow anyone to hang their heads or get down about it. They were always on everyone to remain focused and push even harder."
The Rockets play another must-win Mid-American Conference game Saturday when they travel to Kalamazoo to face Western Michigan (1-3, 0-1). The Broncos have been blown out in losses to Virginia Tech (63-0) and Ball State (41-14), but nearly beat Illinois (30-27), so Amstutz considers them as dangerous as any team he will face this year.
"They had a bye last week so there was plenty of time to pre
pare for us, and I expect we'll get their best game," he said.
''We're not where we need to be. We'll need to continue to make strides this week, and as the season goes on."
Going into this season, it was clear that Toledo would set a record in at least one area - exposure.
The Rockets had four appearances on ESPN2 on the schedule, and the opportunity for fifth and sixth TV games on the network if they advanced to the Mid-American Conference championship game and played in a bowl game.
The regular season will now include at least five games on ESPN for the Rockets after the network announced yesterday that it will broadcast Toledo's Oct. 16 MAC game against Ohio from the Glass Bowl. The start time has been moved from 7 p.m. to noon.
"This is another great opportunity for the University of Toledo and for the Mid-American Conference," UT coach Tom Amstutz said. "To have five games on ESPN or ESPN2 is a big plus for our program. Our players love to play on ESPN."
The Rockets' season opener against Minnesota was carried on ESPN2, and critical November MAC games against defending league champ Miami, Northern Illinois and archrival and defending West Division champ Bowling Green are all scheduled for ESPN2.
Toledo's television time increased further when the Buckeye Cable-
Vision Sports Network (BCSN) carried the Eastern Michigan game in September, and BCSN will also pick up the Western Michigan game on Saturday from Kalamazoo.
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