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Players-only meeting shows Rockets haven't given up yet

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Alston

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Football is a game of blocking and tackling and, well, meeting. Coaches meet with coaches to watch films and plot game plans. Coaches meet with players. If coaches aren't meeting, it's almost like they're not working.

The University of Toledo had a team meeting Sunday evening.

The coaches were asked to leave.

"It was players only," linebacker and co-captain Mike Alston said, "because we're the ones that have to solve the problem."

The problem is a 2-4 record and an 0-2 mark in the Mid-American Conference after Saturday night's 42-20 loss to Central Michigan at the Glass Bowl.

With CMU at 3-0 in MAC West Division play, the Rockets' backs are firmly against the wall - maybe even joined to the wall - in the league title chase.

Were UT's captains concerned that some of their teammates might be about to write off the season?

"No, that's not a problem," Alston said. "But it was a good time to prevent it from becoming a problem. It's sort of like preventing a disease before it starts to spread.

"We have so many younger players that we wanted to make sure they knew the goals are still out there. They can't get discouraged. It's a long season and we can still go 8-4 and be bowl eligible and, maybe, win a MAC championship. There's still a chance."

The Rockets will travel Saturday to meet a surprising Kent State team that has won four straight games and has a firm grip on the MAC East race.

"I looked our guys in the eye and I could tell that everybody is still focused," Alston said. "The team's really excited. We're ready to become road warriors for a couple weeks and get back in it and contend."

Head coach Tom Amstutz said the players-only meeting was fine by him.

"That's what leaders do," he said of his captains. "When things are rough, they make sure the players pull together. It was positive. The players are sticking together and have been ready to work through the situation and the schedule. Since the meeting, our practices have been really sharp. I'm proud of the way the team has responded.

"I'm telling you, this team comes out to practice with the same focus and energy that our championship teams did. So, we're not done yet."

The Rockets have lost two straight, though, by a combined score of 87-23. Central Michigan, which snapped a 10-game losing streak against UT a year ago, won at the Glass Bowl for the first time since 1993. And, finally, Toledo hasn't been 0-2 in MAC play since 1988.

So, the Rockets might be practicing like champions, but

"The foundation is here for a very, very good team," said Amstutz, whose depth chart is liberally sprinkled with first-year players, some of them true freshmen. "It comes down to turnovers."

In both conference losses - UT dropped its opener at Western Michigan, 31-10 - the Rockets have been on the short end of 4-0 turnover margins.

"We're working on it," Amstutz said. "Those are correctable. We're doing ball-leverage drills. We're repeating plays in practice that aren't executed right until they're done the right way.

"The coaches are coaching every play in practice and the players are responding in a positive way."

If UT turns it around, though, the coaches' absence at last Sunday's post-practice team meeting may have been a first step.

"We have to bounce back," Alston said. "And the players are the ones who have to give our best efforts to do it. We had to air everything out and make sure everybody was on the same page. I'm confident we are."

Contact Dave Hackenberg at:

dhack@theblade.com

or 419-724-6398.

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