AMHERST, N.Y. — There is something attractive about the University of Toledo’s blemishes.
The Rockets can get victimized for yards and yards on defense, lapse into a coma on offense, and fail on something as routine as kicking an extra point. And they keep winning.
For two months the Rockets have shown signs of imperfection, and for two months they’ve been perfect in the only evaluation that matters. Saturday’s 25-20 win at Buffalo was perhaps as gruesome as any during this streak of eight in a row, but style points never mean much when you inch closer to a league title and a top 25 ranking.
Facing a Buffalo team that dropped its sixth straight, UT turned the ball over for a touchdown, punted seven times in the first half, and were victimized for the first time by a rash of special teams miscues. A much maligned defense earns a gold star, with Dan Molls scoring on a fumble recovery for Toledo’s only points of the first half, and Jayrone Elliott forcing a fumble on a sack with 1:30 remaining. That formula — a defensive TD early and a turnover late — was the catalyst in last week’s win over then-ranked Cincinnati.
“Don’t get me wrong, the last two weeks have been huge team wins, but it was just nice to have a little bit more on our shoulders to really carry this team to victories,” said Molls, who eluded quarterback Alex Zordich on his was to a 13-yard TD in the first quarter.
Running back David Fluellen returned 10 minutes from his hometown and entertained 65 or so of his friends and family with a thunderous performance. In etching his fifth straight 100-yard day and eclipsing 1000 yards on the season, the junior from Lockport has never been better. He posted career highs of 35 carries and 228 yards and scored on the first two drives after halftime, the second coming on a 1-yard run that capped a drive in which he carried the ball on all four plays, totaling 84 yards.
“He’s explosive,” Toledo coach Matt Campbell said. “I think one of the things that sometimes people didn’t realize, especially in Toledo the past two years, is just how explosive he is. I’m not afraid to say this: He’s one of the best backs in the country right now.”
Fluellen’s impact after the break was sorely needed. The Rockets (8-1, 5-0) had no answers in the first half, building their streak of quarters without an offensive touchdown to seven. They converted just once on eight third-down tries, gained 115 yards, and Terrance Owens was intercepted twice. Cortney Lester returned one of those errant passes 23 yards for a TD, although Alonzo Russell’s lazy effort to catch the ball is as much to blame as Owens’ overthrow.
Trailing 14-7, Campbell said he didn’t consider replacing Owens with Austin Dantin.
“We talked at halftime about how we could equate the numbers in the box,” Campbell said. “It seemed like early in the game [Buffalo] did a great job of getting an extra hat in the box.”
Those adjustments aimed at spreading the defense netted touchdowns on the first three drives of the third quarter. Owens (12 of 25 for 171 yards) found Cordale Scott and Bernard Reedy across the middle after halftime for pick-ups of 21 yards to set up Fluellen’s first TD run. On the next drive, Fluellen ripped off runs of 17, 49, and 19 yards before powering in from the 1 to give Toledo its first lead, 19-14, at the 8:11 mark.
“It was like an old high school game with the weather and the straight run,” Fluellen said. “We couldn’t pass a lot but we executed what the coaches designed for us.”
True freshman Alex Zmolik hauled in an 8-yard pass in the end zone for the final TD of the third-quarter, widening the gap to 25-14. Kicker Jeremiah Detmer, who had been perfect on the season, missed the extra point after all three scores. Two were blocked, and one he missed wide. Detmer didn’t get to attempt a 45-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter after Vince Penza failed to secure a high snap from Matt Wall. It was a rare series of mishaps for a three-part combination that has been superb.
“I’m going to look at it and see if there’s a schematic issue,” Campbell said. “I don’t think there is. I think it had more to do with the weather tonight.”
For the third straight week Toledo had to battle the elements. Saturday’s rainfall never relented, making life miserable for the 2000 or so spectators that turned out.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.