As the old saying goes, defense loses championships.
OK, that’s not usually how the oft-used cliche in football is repeated, but for the University of Toledo, a more consistent, stout defense may have been the difference last season in not allowing a Mid-American Conference West Division championship and a victory in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl to slip away.
In both crucial contests, the Rockets’ defense faltered, letting Northern Illinois run away with a 65-30 win that ultimately decided the MAC West title and Florida International steal a 34-32 comeback victory in the bowl game at Ford Field in Detroit.
Yet the fact that the Rockets were even in a position to play in those high-stakes matchups is a testament to the defense’s turnaround from the year before.
UT finished 2010 ranked fifth in the nation with 34 takeaways, a startling number considered they forced just 21 turnovers the year before in coach Tim Beckman’s rookie season.
The Rockets admit last season was a big step forward, especially on defense, but there’s still a lot of unfinished business.
“We’re just going to do everything we can to get this MAC championship,” said UT senior defensive end Malcolm Riley, a native of Fort Wayne majoring in marketing. “We were so close last year. We were in that West showdown with NIU, and we let it slip. That game still sticks in my mind, along with the bowl game, and now that we’ve gotten a little taste of it, we’re just planning on getting back there and getting over that hump.”
Just as it was the unit that carried them into and then out of contention last year, the Rockets’ defense knows it has to be better in 2011. And with seven starters back on that side of the ball, there’s certainly the potential for that.
“I think our defense can be real special,” said sixth-year senior cornerback Desmond Marrow, who hails from Youngstown and is working on a second undergraduate degree in recreation. “The coaches have a plan installed, and we just go out there and try to follow it. I think the best part is the experience and the leadership that we have at every position. We’ve basically just picked up where we left off from last season.”
All 11 starters on defense are either juniors or seniors, and the two-deep depth chart contains just five sophomores, two redshirt freshmen, and one true freshman.
The defensive line is composed of three seniors — Riley and tackles Johnathan Lamb and Johnie Roberts — and junior end T.J. Fatinikun.
Behind them are two juniors, Danny Molls at middle linebacker and Robert Bell at weakside linebacker, and senior Charles Rancifer at the star.
In the secondary, seniors Taikwon Paige and Marrow are at cornerback, senior Diauntae Morrow is expected to take over at free safety, and Jermaine Robinson has returned at strong safety from offseason surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon suffered in the bowl game.
“On the defensive line, all four guys have been playing for the last two-three years,” Beckman said. “At linebacker, you lose your top tackler in Archie Donald but then in the secondary you have a lot of guys that have played before. If you look at it, we should be better, I mean, because they’ve been playing together [for quite a while].”
The only questions marks are Rancifer and Morrow, who are unexpectedly starting in place of returning senior starters and the team’s third and fourth-leading tacklers.
Rogers graduate Isaiah Ballard was kicked off the team in May after making 76 tackles last year at the star and on special teams. Free safety Mark Singer recorded 73 tackles and two interceptions in 2010 but was lost for the season during fall camp with a torn labrum.
“I think we’re still making strides to be better than we were last year,” Beckman said. “Of course, when you lose two of your players, there’s a little bit of concern, [but] we’ve done our duty in recruiting the last couple of years so that these guys are ready to come in and fill in some shoes when we have injuries.”
With one of the best collections of talent and experience in the MAC, the Rockets’ defense has the tools to become a more dominant force in 2011 and help accomplish the team goals they fell short of last year — to win a conference championship and win a bowl game.
“We do have a lot of people coming back, but we still feel like we have a lot of work to do,” said Fatinikun, a Perrysburg graduate and communications major. “We’ve played a lot of football, but we haven’t arrived at where we need to be. We have a lot of talent on our team, and each day we come out here, we’re just working to put it all together.”
Contact Zach Silka at: email@example.com or 419-724-6084.