When the University of Toledo football team leaves the cozy confines of the Glass Bowl next week, the Rockets will take with them a fresh awareness.
UT is no longer the team that some wrote off after September, and is no longer running under the Mid-American Conference radar.
A three-game winning streak began because the Rockets wanted desperately to salvage the season. It wasn't about the MAC Championship or a bowl, it was about winning games and avoiding a second straight losing season.
Now that the end of the season is near, there is a whole new pressure.
"At first we were focused on, 'all right, we've got to turn it around, we've got to start winning,'•" sophomore tailback DaJuane Collins said. "Now that we've won three in a row, we're 5-5, our thinking is we've got to win these last two games if we want to go to a bowl game. Everyone's refocused."
UT plays Ball State a week from today in Muncie, Ind. The teams have identical records and bowl hopes.
The Rockets have historically struggled on the road against the Cardinals, but they believe one of their biggest strength is what they have experienced to this point.
A team that went through so many early frustrating losses and still has a chance at a bowl has a lot to lean back on.
"We fought through adversity," Collins said. "Now when we're in a game and we hit a tough situation, we know how to battle through it."
The closer the chance for the postseason comes, the less UT coach Tom Amstutz wants to talk about it.
"If you start looking ahead, you're going to forget what's important," Amstutz said. "What's important now is the way we prepare and practice for the next game. That's all I'm interested in. I'm not interested in any other talk."
Although the Northern Illinois win two weeks ago opened some eyes, the victory over Eastern Michigan on Saturday proved to UT players they could have consistent performances.
"Eastern was a big test to show which direction we're going in," safety Lester Richmond said. "It was a big momentum boost and a big reality check that we're not completely out of it."
UT is 0-3 on the road this year, with the most recent game an Oct. 13 loss at Buffalo. The Rockets know they will have to show some different tendencies to get their first win away from the Glass Bowl. But they also know they are a different team, and there are new expectations.
"Momentum's going well, and that's what you really need going into a big game like this," quarterback Aaron Opelt said. "If we keep doing the same in these two games, I think we could end off the season pretty good and get that third game in there."
ROCKETS SWEEP AWARDS: UT players won all of the three MAC West weekly awards announced yesterday. Senior tailback Jalen Parmele won the offensive player of the week award with his 168 yards rushing and three touchdowns against Eastern Michigan. A Rockets offensive player has won the award three straight weeks, twice by Parmele.
Sophomore safety Barry Church won defensive honors for his interception and on-side kick recovery. Senior Andrew Hawkins won the special teams player of the week award for his four tackles on various coverage units.
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