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Published: Monday, 12/27/2004

Rockets notebook: Don't leave before the fireworks

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

DETROIT - The best advice for the 50,000-plus fans expected to be on hand at Ford Field here today for the Motor City Bowl matchup between Toledo and Connecticut is this: Don't leave early.

Both teams have shown a propensity for dramatic come-from-behind victories, and they have stretched that old Yogi Berra-ism, "It ain't over till it's over," to the limit.

Toledo has built a reputation for late-stage heroics under head coach Tom Amstutz, coming back from at least 10 points down to snatch victory from what looked like defeat 11 times in his four seasons running the program.

The Rockets came from behind to beat Miami in the Mid-American Conference championship game, and they had to mount a furious comeback just to get there in the first place. The Rockets trailed rival Bowling Green 27-7 at halftime of the final game of the season, needing a win to take the MAC West Division title and advance to the championship game.

Five straight second-half touchdowns later, UT was back in the game and on its way to a 49-41 victory.

"We have done that a number of times, and it gives every guy on this team the confidence that the game is never over," said UT wide receiver Lance Moore. "We have been in some pretty big holes and worked our way out of it by fighting back one play at a time. We never quit, and that approach has helped us win a lot of games."

Connecticut trailed Duke 20-6 with just over 11 minutes to play in a game this past September, but rallied for a 22-20 win. In the 35 games since UConn moved into the Division I-A ranks, six times the Huskies have erased a 10-point or greater deficit to win a game, and five times UConn has rallied in the fourth quarter for a victory.

GRADKOWSKI UPDATE: UT junior quarterback Bruce Gradkowski continues to recover from the broken hand he suffered in the MAC championship game Dec. 2, and the surgery on his hand the following day. Gradkowski is expected to start today against UConn.

Coach Tom Amstutz said he was comfortable with the progress Gradkowski has made. "We knew he was tough when we recruited him, and we've seen that over and over," Amstutz said, "and I don't expect him to let this prevent him from playing in the bowl game. Bruce has showed us his character, and his drive and motivation to play and to win. It really shines a light on what a great leader he is. I expect him to play and be the Bruce Gradkowski we know."

Amstutz said redshirt freshman Marques Council is ready if needed.

MAKEUP GAME: UConn and Toledo are meeting for the first time, but they had been originally scheduled to play at the Glass Bowl on Oct. 23.

However, because the Huskies were invited to join the Big East Conference a year earlier than scheduled after the departures of Miami and Virginia Tech, the team had to quickly restructure its 2004 schedule and the matchup with the Rockets was one of several casualties.

YOUNG KICKERS: Amstutz considers himself fortunate to be in a bowl game in 2004, and as he looks back at the season he realizes a couple of wild cards panned out for him. Amstutz went through the year with a true freshman punter, Brett Kern, and a true freshman walk-on player, Mike Krispinsky, handling the kickoffs. And Amstutz said if you play freshmen and they don't hurt you, then they have helped you.

"That was a big concern going into the season, but both of those guys have done the job for us," Amstutz said. "The way they have played has been a bonus. And the exciting part is that both of them will get better and stronger, and their best playing days are in front of them."

MAC-NIFICENT: The UConn Huskies have feasted on teams from the MAC since the 2000 season, going 18-10 against them and winning eight of the last nine meetings. UConn faced only Buffalo from the MAC in 2004, and was a 29-0 winner.

ON THE ATTACK: University of Toledo linebacker David Thomas thinks the best way to play defense against a potent UConn offense is to turn the tables on the Huskies. "That's always been our motto on defense - to attack first and force the offense to react to us," Thomas said. "By attacking and always being in an aggressive mode, you force confusion, create turnovers, and get your offense back out on the field. We think our best chance to control the game is to always be attacking when we're on defense."

NEW ENGLAND NEWBIE: Other than Boston College, UConn will become the first New England school to go to a bowl game since 1969. BC is making its 16th bowl appearance on Dec. 30 in the Continental Tire Bowl, while UConn makes its first bowl date when it meets Toledo in today's Motor City Bowl.

CROWDED BANDWAGON: Nothing builds a fan base like success. The interest in the Husky football program is directly linked to the team's progress on the field. For the much-anticipated 2004 season, UConn sold approximately 28,000 season tickets at Rentschler Field, an impressive thing considering that the 2001 season-ticket base was around 4,000.



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