KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Matt Campbell has proclaimed all season that University of Toledo's football program, through an extended run of good recruiting, has reached a point where it should not be crippled by injuries to key players.
The coach may now be ready to prove it.
With the season-ending loss of standout defensive end T.J. Fatinikun, and less significant injuries suffered by two other line starters, the depth that Campbell trumpets was put under a microscope Saturday at Western Michigan.
Campbell announced after his team's resounding 37-17 triumph that he expects to play the rest of the year without Fatinkun, a two-time All Mid-American Conference selection who left the game early with a lower leg injury.
After missing the final seven games of last year with a dislocated elbow that required surgery, the Perrysburg graduate will be scratched from the last seven games of this regular season. Given that he hobbled off the field so early — just a few minutes into the game — that number might as well be eight.
Fatinikun, whom Campbell calls the "heartbeat" of the defense, finished the year with 10 tackles and one sack. In a career in which he appeared in just 35 of a possible 50 contests — a number that could grow to 52 if the Rockets play in the Mid-American Conference title game and a bowl game — Fatinikun registered 104 tackles, 25 tackles for loss, and 11 sacks.
Campbell will not disclose specifics of the injury until further testing is conducted. Because he has played in more than 30 percent of his team's games Fatinikun is not eligible for a medical hardship waiver. Thus, his college career apparently is over.
"You don't know why these things happen," Campbell said. "I told T.J. it won't define him. I think one of the great things about T.J. Fatinikun is his leadership and his ability to respond. If I know T.J. Fatinikun, he'll respond to this as well."
Campbell was more optimistic about the fortunes of center Zac Kerin and defensive end Christian Smith, both of whom suffered undisclosed injuries and did not return.
"It looks like they're just dinged up, and hopefully we'll have them back next week," Campbell said.
Toledo (4-1, 2-0 MAC), which sits atop the West division by a half game, will host Central Michigan on Saturday for homecoming. The Chippewas (2-2, 0-1) were outscored 21-0 in the fourth quarter Saturday of a 55-24 loss at Northern Illinois.
Replacing Kerin in the second half was Robert Lisowski, a versatile sophomore who can man several spots on the line. The Rockets gained 105 of their season-high 278 rushing yards in the final two quarters.
After Fatinikun went out, a steady diet of reps were fed to Ben Pike (four tackles, half-sack), Hank Keighley (two tackles), and Jayrone Elliott, who recorded a sack to increase his team-high total to three. Smith, the starting end opposite Fatinikun, left late in the fourth quarter.
"It's time for everybody to step up and just play football," cornerback Jordan Haden said.
Haden, whose 63-yard interception return early in the second half represented a possible 14-point swing and lifted UT's lead to 27-9, is among several reserves on defense that have garnered expanded roles in recent weeks.
Three linebackers stand out the most. University of Michigan transfer Vladimir Emilien, making his first start Saturday, intercepted a deflected pass with one hand. James Gordon recorded his first four tackles of the season. One week after making 13 stops against Coastal Carolina, Trent Voss contributed on a sack and broke up a third-down pass.
Other undistinguished players to see the field Saturday were reserve defensive backs Keith Suggs, Juwan Haynes, Chaz Whitaker, and Ross Madison.
"We know we can play really well on defense," Campbell said. "We know we have really good players on the defensive side of the football. I think we have depth, and it's showing."
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