Dinks and dunks and bubble screens. The University of Toledo has made a lot of hay in recent years with its short, possession-type passing game.
But if opposing defenses get too settled in against that and UT's potent running attack, the Rockets won't hesitate to take advantage by going deep.
It was one of those plays, a 70-yard bomb from Bruce Gradkowski to Andrew Hawkins, which gave Toledo the cushion it needed last Saturday in a win over Buffalo at the Glass Bowl.
"A big part of our passing game is setting teams up with the short pass and run," Hawkins said yesterday. "We'll set them up for a big-hitter."
The Rockets are 6-1 and 4-0 in Mid-American Conference play, but were treading water with a rather uncomfortable 17-12 lead against Buffalo in the third quarter. UT took possession on its 30 after a missed field goal attempt by the Bulls.
Toledo's coaches knew that the Buffalo defense had been crowding the line of scrimmage and sensed the long play might work.
"It's exciting to stand on the sideline, knowing what's been called, and watch a big play develop perfectly," said UT coach Tom Amstutz.
It started with Gradkowski, who sold a perfect fake handoff before dropping into the pocket and letting it fly.
"In the sense of running the play I'm just reacting," Gradkowski said. "But I couldn't have missed Hawkins with that one. He was really open. We can do so many different things in our scheme if defenses focus on the run or short pass. If they put eight or nine guys in the box, we can go over the top.
"That's what we did there and I remember thinking, 'Man, that ball's been in the air a long time.' "
The pass had a high arc and traveled some 50 yards in the air. Hawkins barely had to break stride to pull it in and complete the long play. The 5-8, 165-pound sophomore speedster, said he had to guard against getting too excited.
"Buffalo really bit on the play action [fake] and I was wide open," he said. "I had to maintain focus and make sure I got it in my hands."
Amstutz said it was one of those perfectly-executed moments where he "wanted to run out there and help Andrew catch it."
Hawkins needed no help on this occasion, although he was one of several Rocket receivers who had a few more dropped passes than any of them would have liked earlier in the season.
"It was disappointing when that happened," Hawkins said. "You always feel like you're letting your teammates down. It just made me focus all the more to help the team."
Toledo's problems began with a young receiving corps and were exacerbated when Gradkowski missed a number of practices over a two-week period because of injuries.
"I think we all realized that we can't take anything for granted," Gradkowski said. "The receivers had to be more precise in catching the ball and I had to be more precise in putting it in the right spots. We've all worked hard on our focus."
Hawkins said the drops were the fault of the head, not the hands, and added, "I think Bruce has done a great job of working with the receivers. A lot of us were playing for the first time and those drops were all mental mistakes.
"Coach Amstutz calls me aside almost every day and says, 'Focus, focus. Look it in and go from there.' I've worked hard to focus and execute and make plays."
Hawkins leads the Rockets with 22 catches for 261 yards. Fellow wide receiver Steve Odom, who had UT's longest reception of the season, 36 yards, before Hawkins broke free on Saturday, has 20 catches for 218 yards. Odom and freshman John Allen, who brings wide receiver skills to a tight end slot, each have four touchdown receptions.
Gradkowski and back-up quarterback Clint Cochran have thrown to 14 receivers for an average of 214 yards per game.
Heading into a MAC showdown at Central Michigan (4-3, 3-1) this Saturday, the balanced Rockets have scored 32 touchdowns, 16 on the ground and 16 through the air.
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