On a team known for putting up some impressive offensive numbers, it was the University of Toledo's defense that made the loudest statement during last night's 62-14, season-opening win over Western Illinois at the Glass Bowl.
The Rockets defense scored its team's first touchdown of 2005 on an interception return, returned a WIU fumble for another score, set up two offensive TDs with a fumble recovery and pass pick, and made a fourth-down stop inside the red zone.
And that was just in the first half, which is all that was needed to decide this matchup between the defending Mid-American Conference champions and a Division I-AA opponent.
It was a far cry from a year ago, when the Rockets defense was pulverized in season-opening losses to Minnesota and Kansas.
The competition certainly wasn't the same, but UT's defenders were more than willing to have an opportunity to flex their muscles.
"We came out fast and looked pretty good," said senior cornerback Antonio Malone, whose 60-yard interception return opened the scoring. "Our coaches emphasize take-aways every day. We led the country in that a few years back [turnover ratio in 2000] and we wanted to get back to it. I think we sent a pretty solid message tonight."
The Rockets pitched a shutout until just six minutes remained in the game.
"I don't think we had any comparison with last season in mind, but I thought it was critical that we came out and played sound football," said new UT defensive coordinator Tim Rose. "For the most part, we did. With the kind of athletes we have, we feel that if we hang on and don't give up big plays, sooner or later we'll make some. That's what happened tonight."
Toledo quarterback Bruce Gradkowski completed 9 of 17 passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns while running for another as the Rockets put 28 points on the board in the second quarter.
When freshman Richard Davis, touching the ball for just the second time in his collegiate career, returned the second-half kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown to put the Rockets ahead 48-0, Amstutz pulled the plug on Gradkowski and played backup Clint Cochran during the second half. Cochran was 7-of-9 for 57 yards.
Davis, meanwhile, used the final 30 minutes as his personal coming-out party. The 200-pound running back from Warren, Ohio, added a rushing touchdown to his kickoff return and carried 13 times for 111 yards.
"I expected to play all on special teams, but when I got the opportunity I just ran hard and fought for all I could get," Davis said.
The opportunity existed in part because of an injury early in the second half to starting tailback Trinity Dawson. He was taken from the sideline to the locker room on a cart and appeared to have a leg injury, but head coach Tom Amstutz would not directly address that after the game and simply said, "We had no serious injuries.
"Davis didn't surprise me. He's been practicing like a special player and he'll get more playing time as he goes."
Amstutz also saluted his defense, saying: "That kind of performance really excites me. It was a big-play defense, and we got one from special teams, too, on the blocked punt."
Malone disguised his coverage and timed his cut perfectly to pick off a pass by WIU's Steve LaFalce just 2 1/2 minutes into the game. Malone streaked 60 yards untouched for his first career TD.
The special teams chipped in when Jason Flowers broke through to block a punt that was returned 10 yards to the WIU 15, setting the stage for a Jason Robbins field goal from 33 yards.
Robbins added a 28-yarder on UT's next possession for a 13-0 lead, and then safety Keon Jackson smacked Leatherneck running back Travis Glasford, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Bo Martin, who later added an interception, at the WIU 36 late in the first quarter. Gradkowski followed with his first TD pass, an acrobatic maneuver in the end zone by walk-on freshman tight end John Allen.
The defense made it 27-0 with 9:03 left in the first half when Anthony Jordan hit Glasford to again knock the ball loose. Cornerback Nigel Morris picked it up and rumbled 37 yards for a touchdown.
Toledo posted 401 yards of total offense, rushing the ball 37 times for 210 yards. The Leathernecks finished with just 64 net rushing yards on 41 attempts.
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