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Published: Wednesday, 12/21/2005

Rockets not on bowl roll

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

MOBILE, Ala. - The odds-makers say that the University of Toledo is a three-point favorite tonight against Texas-El Paso in the GMAC Bowl.

But let's not sugarcoat things.

The Rockets have lost their last two bowl games by a combined score of 90-35.

UT was outclassed and lost its poise in a 51-25 setback to a veteran Boston College team in the 2002 Motor City Bowl. Last year, quarterback Bruce Gradkowski was ineffective for one half and then scratched because of a hand injury in a 39-10 Motor City loss to Connecticut.

"I've talked to our players about how the way to complete the bowl experience is to play our very best game of the year," UT coach Tom Amstutz said yesterday. "We haven't done that the last couple times, but we've prepared very hard to do it [tonight] against UTEP.

"I've asked them to give a great effort and not hold anything back. If that happens, I can be satisfied, and our players can be satisfied, whatever the score is."

UT seems better positioned to compete in this bowl game because of 13 seniors, eight of whom are considered to be the best players on the squad. They include Gradkowski, who holds 19 school passing records, as well as inside linebackers Anthony Jordan and David Thomas, safety Keon Jackson, 1,200-yard rusher Trinity Dawson, cornerback Antonio Malone, offensive tackle Chris Wakeman and kicker Jason Robbins, who has not missed a field goal this season.

"Our receivers are going to have to make plays and we're going to have to establish the run," Gradkowski said. "Heck, we're probably going to have to throw everything in our playbook at 'em. This bowl game is very important to us, especially to the seniors. We're confident we can get the job done."

Most prognosticators are expecting a shoot-out between two high-powered spread offenses.

Toledo led the Mid-American Conference in total offense with 445.2 yards per game and in scoring with 34.9 points per game. The Rockets are about as balanced as you'll find - they passed for 2,459 yards and ran for 2,438 yards during the regular season.

Behind quarterback Jordan Palmer and receivers Johnnie Lee Higgins and Chris Francies, UTEP averaged 438 yards per game. The Miners are pass-heavy, though, averaging 310.5 of those yards through the air.

Palmer has thrown 18 interceptions and the Rockets, with 13 picks on the season, feel they may have the edge on defense.

"They've definitely got some threats," Malone said of the Miners. "We have to contain some guys who can break loose at any time. But there are those numbers to consider."

Amstutz joked that he has "issued butterfly nets to our defensive backs to intercept a couple passes. There's no mistaking Jordan is Carson Palmer's brother. He's a tremendous talent."

Both teams are 8-3 and it could be argued that UTEP has played a tad tougher schedule in Conference-USA, where the Miners finished second to Tulsa in the Western Division.

But UTEP is also on a two-game losing streak - they dropped games to Alabama-Birmingham and Southern Methodist to end the regular season - and Miner teams have lost their final game in 18 consecutive seasons.

"That's a very unusual record, but there are a lot of unusual records at UTEP that we'd like to break," said Miners coach Mike Price.

He feels the outcome of tonight's game will "be determined by mistakes, and it bothers me that Toledo doesn't make many."

The Rockets are plus-6 in turnover margin this season - six fumbles lost and 11 passes intercepted compared to 23 defensive takeaways. The Miners are minus-11, having lost 14 fumbles to go with Palmer's 18 interceptions.

"We have to be able to create situations where we take that control away from Toledo," Price said.

The UTEP coach feels the GMAC Bowl is a perfect matchup.

"Football, obviously, is huge in Texas," he said. "It's important in Ohio; it's the biggest thing in communities there when kids are growing up. And it's very important in Alabama, where there is a great respect for the game.

"That makes this bowl special that these two teams have come here from Ohio and Texas. It brings everything together."

Former NFL star Terry Bradshaw was the speaker at yesterday's GMAC Bowl Mayor's Luncheon. He said that "bowl games are for fun, and with these two high-powered offenses this one should be more than fun."

But Amstutz shook his head.

"We've had fun here; everyone has been very hospitable and it has been a wonderful trip," UT's coach said. "But there's a time for fun and there's a time for focus. It's time to focus now."

The Rockets, after all, haven't had all that much fun in their last two bowl games. Just check out the scores.

UT will be out to change that tonight at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. Kickoff is set for 8, Toledo time, and the game will be televised on ESPN.

Contact Dave Hackenberg at:

dhack@theblade.com

or 419-724-6398.



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