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Published: Friday, 11/4/2005

Rockets visit first-place Bobcats

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

University of Toledo coach Tom Amstutz, in the aftermath of a loss last Saturday at Central Michigan, said that "our team will be remembered by how we finish the last three games."

A large audience will help decide whether the 2005 Rockets are memorable or not.

That three-game season begins tonight in Athens, Ohio, where the Rockets and Ohio University meet at 8 o'clock in Peden Stadium.

Like UT's home game against Northern Illinois on Nov. 16, and a road test six nights later at Bowling Green, tonight's contest will be nationally televised on ESPN2.

Toledo is 8-8 overall in national TV games under Amstutz, but is 7-3 in such games against Mid-American Conference opponents.

Tonight's contest pits teams tied for first place in their respective MAC divisions. UT is 6-2, 4-1 in the MAC West, while Ohio, 4-4 overall, is in a four-way scrum for the MAC East lead at 3-2.

The Bobcats, in their first season under one-time Nebraska coach Frank Solich, are 3-0 thus far at Peden Stadium, where 20,000-plus are expected for tonight's game.

"We just kind of looked around and found ourselves where we're at," Solich said of the East race, which took on a new complexion after two recent losses by Bowling Green. "I'm not sure how we got to this point."

The Bobcats got there with home wins over Kent State and Ball State as well as last weekend's 34-20 win at Buffalo when sophomore running back Kalvin McRae broke loose for 224 yards and two touchdowns.

He now has 937 yards after eight games, an average of 117.1 yards per outing.

"He's talented," Amstutz said of McRae.

"They like to get the ball to him in space. They'll pitch to him on the option and he has speed to turn the corner.

"This team is far more versatile than Ohio has been in recent years as [primarily] an option team. They'll run a power scheme, they'll bootleg a lot, they'll spread out and mix in the pass depending on the game situation, and they still run some option. We'll have to play very good assignment defense."

UT linebacker Anthony Jordan said that by the final month of the season, "offenses have the whole playbook in and they're firing everything at you. Ohio won't do anything that we haven't seen before, but they combine it all into one package. We'll be challenged."

Based on statistics, Toledo should be able to challenge the Bobcats through the air.

Quarterback Bruce Gradkowski has completed 64.7 per cent of his attempts for 210 yards per game and 17 touchdowns. Ohio's opponents have been fattening up through the air to the tune of 289 yards a game.

But Gradkowski is aware of OU cornerback Dion Byrum, who leads the MAC with five interceptions, two of which have been returned for touchdowns. The most notable came in overtime against Pittsburgh, giving Solich an upset win in OU's home opener.

"Byrum's really good and their whole defense flies around to the ball," Gradkowski said. "They beat Pitt and played Virginia Tech tough at the beginning of the game.

"We're looking forward to the challenge. After a loss, we're hungry to get back on the field. There would be no better way to get some redemption than to go on the road into a tough environment and get a little swagger back."

After a decent start, OU faded to a 45-0 loss in that non-conference game at Virginia Tech. The Bobcats also have lost on the road to Northwestern, Bowling Green and Central Michigan.

They nonetheless find themselves perfect at home and tied for the division lead late in the season.

"It's certainly an opportunity for us and we want to try and take advantage of it," Solich said. "But it won't be easy. Toledo is about as complete a football team as we'll play. You turn on tape and you don't see weaknesses in any of the areas."

Contact Dave Hackenberg at:

dhack@theblade.com

or 419-724-6398.



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