UT looking to pass early MAC test


ATHENS, Ohio — College football teams are usually afforded some time between the start of the season and their first league game.

Not so for several teams in the Mid-American Conference this week, including the University of Toledo and Ohio.

After both opened their seasons with nonconference opponents last week, the Rockets and Bobcats will do battle Saturday at 7 p.m. at Peden Stadium in the start of MAC play.

Week 2 of the season isn't usually the time for such important league games, with Ohio beginning its defense of its MAC East Division title and UT trying to claim its first conference title since 2004, and it has caused both teams to alter their game preparations.

“This will be a huge game for both teams,” Ohio coach Frank Solich said. “Normally you don't look forward to playing a conference game quite this soon, but it is what it is.”

Last year, the Rockets played all four of its nonconference matchups in the first four weeks of the season.

This year, UT takes on Ohio and Western Michigan on the road in back-to-back weeks before concluding nonconference play against Wyoming and at Boise State.

“We've talked about it with the players since the schedule came out and they're very well aware of how we have to peak earlier this year than we did last year,” UT coach Tim Beckman said. “And so does OU. They have to play at their best [earlier] too, because their goal is to win a conference championship too. We just have to do it on the road.”

The Rockets posted a 2-4 record as the visiting team last season in Beckman's first as head coach, including a 1-3 mark in conference play.

“As I learned a long time ago when I was a graduate assistant for Pat Dye [at Auburn], he said, ‘If you don't learn to win on the road, you're never going to win a championship,'” Beckman said. “This is the first hurdle we've got, and it just happens to be on the road.”

UT will be without senior defensive end Douglas Westbrook again Saturday night due to a two-game suspension for an unspecified violation of team rules.

Beckman said junior cornerback Taikwon Paige will be available after sitting out last week's 41-2 loss to Arizona with an unspecified knee injury, but sophomore cornerback Byron Best should still see most of the playing time at the position.

The Bobcats also have a few key team members fighting injuries. Wide receiver LaVon Brazill was held out of last week's 33-10 win over Wofford with a leg injury, but is expected back tonight. Quarterback Phil Bates went down with a thumb injury against Wofford and is listed as questionable.

Boo Jackson filled in for Bates, something Solich had already planned on doing before Bates even got injured.

Jackson finished 7-of-12 passing for 97 yards and an interception, while Bates was 1-of-5 passing for 4 yards before being sidelined in the first half. Bates also rushed for 48 yards on 10 carries, and Jackson added 15 yards and a touchdown on the ground.

“We hope to play both guys [again tonight],” Solich said. “I thought Phil did a great job of running the football. He's got that kind of big-play ability.

“Boo came in and did very well and made a couple big plays for us. He picked up where he left off when he played last year and the previous year.”

Contact Zach Silka at:zsilka@theblade.comor 419-724-6084.