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Published: Wednesday, 11/16/2005

The Gambler: Amstutz's go-for-it attitude on fourth down fuels Rockets

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Amstutz Amstutz
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A win tonight against Northern Illinois at the Glass Bowl would give the University of Toledo a fourth Mid-American Conference West Division title in Tom Amstutz's five years as head coach.

This life in the fast lane can be attributed, in large part, to Amstutz's reputation as a pedal-to-the-metal coach.

The Rockets' boss, who earlier this week agreed to a contract extension through the 2009 season, takes something of a CEO's approach to the job.

He relies on his assistants to create game plans, a process that reflects his philosophies and which he closely oversees, and he lets them coach in practices and call a lot of the shots during games.

In fact, watching Amstutz on the sideline - his security-blanket whistle around his neck and a benign look on his face as he listens to his staff over the headset - might lead some to believe that he's doing less work than anybody in the stadium.

But when a key situation comes up and a crucial decision is to be made, all eyes and ears are on the big guy who takes a 43-17 career record into tonight's game.

He's at his best, it seems, on fourth down. Whether it's going for the conversion with a conventional play or if it's faking a punt or field goal attempt, few things give Amstutz a bigger rush.

"It's why he gets the big bucks and it's why he's so successful," UT kicker Jason Robbins said of his coach.

Robbins is the Rockets' career leader in field goal percentage, but has been granted just 43 tries in 48 career games. Some of that has to do with a prolific offense that majors in touchdowns - Robbins has attempted 210 point-after kicks during his career - and some has to do with Amstutz rolling the dice in situations where other coaches automatically wave in the field goal unit.

"Sometimes the competitive side of me comes out and I get a little frustrated when we don't try field goals that I know I can make," Robbins said. "But I also know that coach Amstutz is always doing what is best for the team. I know he's trying to put us in the best position to win games.

"Fourth down? Go for it? Let's do it. Our offense is so good that going for it on fourth down is always one of the most exciting parts of the game. I love that."

So does Amstutz.

During his 60 games as head coach, Amstutz's Rockets have opted against punts or field goal attempts on one of every three fourth-down plays. They have attempted to convert on 144 of 428 fourth downs. And they've been successful 81 times, a .563 percentage that puts UT well ahead of the curve.

It often takes place at the goal line or elsewhere in the red zone. But it just as easily might happen near midfield or even on Toledo's side of the 50-yard line.

So where did this derring-do personality come from?

Amstutz certainly didn't learn it during 10 years as a top assistant to his predecessor, Gary Pinkel, who was fairly conservative in the red zone and whose field goal kickers rarely complained about a lack of work.

No, it was another one-time MAC coach who influenced Amstutz's tendency to push the envelope.

"Blame it on Herb Deromedi up at Central Michigan," Amstutz said. "I don't know how many times he turned me intoa frustrated defensive coordi-

nator.

"They'd run the ball off tackle on first down and you'd stop it. They'd pitch it outside on second down and you'd do a pretty good job of stopping them. They'd run it again on third down and you'd stop 'em. Then they'd go for it on fourth-and-one and make it.

"You'd be excited because you'd stopped them and figured that you'd forced a punt or field goal, then Herb would go for it and make it and it would deflate you. It does something to a defense mentally when you think you've done your job and then give up yardage on fourth down and let a team convert.

"So I was a frustrated defensive coordinator. But now I get to make the calls."

Amstutz, of course, says this with a smile on his face and a mad-scientist glint in his eyes.

But he insists there's no madness to his methods.

"It's always a judgment call, especially in the red zone," Amstutz said. "I guess if I follow a rule it's that if you don't have the lead and a field goal will put you ahead, you get the three points. If we have the lead, I might be more tempted to go for it [on fourth down]. It's a matter of the game situation and what I feel comfortable with.

"You factor in the score, the [necessary] yardage, the time left, the momentum of the game and how well your defense is playing. In our last game [at Ohio], we were up nine [30-21] with about one minute left and we went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 3. It didn't work out, but I had confidence our defense wouldn't let Ohio start 98 or 99 yards away and score twice in the amount of time left."

After UT's only league loss at Central Michigan, Amstutz must have felt he was being second-guessed for a couple fourth-down decisions because he mounted a rather spirited defense while speaking to the Downtown Coaches, a UT booster group, at its weekly luncheon two days later.

"I'm a go-for-it guy," he said. "I'll never back away from that one bit. In football, there's no room for timid players and my team will never be timid."

Later, he said he had never reviewed his success or lack thereof on risky, fourth-down calls.

"I know it's in our favor," Amstutz said. "I play to win. I don't regret any call because I always play to win. When in doubt, the way I see it, you to try to make a play to win the game."

Contact Dave Hackenberg at:

dhack@theblade.com

or 419-724-6398.



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