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Published: Friday, 11/2/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Bye week gives Toledo Rockets time to regroup, gear up for game on national TV

BY RYAN AUTULLO
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

This is as close to a bye week as the University of Toledo will experience this football season.

The Rockets are back in action Tuesday night against Ball State, giving them some precious time to gear up for a pivotal stretch of mid-week tests that will sort out the hierarchy in the Mid-American Conference.

Coach Matt Campbell has instituted three objectives for his team in its brief reprieve: Stay healthy, sharpen their fundamentals, and prepare for a credible Cardinals squad that will visit the Glass Bowl before a national TV audience on ESPN2 at 8 p.m..

The Rockets, who have played nine Saturdays in a row, are one of six MAC teams to not have enjoyed a full week off since the summer.

Satisfying Campbell’s first goal, to stay healthy, will take little effort. After nine weeks of mostly down-to-the-wire battles, including the last three played in rain, the Rockets (8-1, 5-0) are remarkably healthy. No one other than defensive ends T.J. Fatinikun and Christian Smith, who suffered season-ending injuries five weeks ago, is expected to miss out on Toledo’s bid to win its ninth in a row. Still, the garden variety bumps and bruises are accumulating — for instance, running back David Fluellen’s wrist on Monday was confined to a protective cast — and the absence of decisive wins means starters have had scant rest. That changed Sunday, a typical day of practice that Campbell called off.

"It comes at a good time to give those guys a day or two to regroup themselves," Campbell said.

Refocusing on fundamentals tends to be forgotten during the regimented run-up to game day. Despite their success, the Rockets have exhibited some flaws, notably in red zone efficiency. They are scoring touchdowns on just 47 percent inside the 20, ranking No. 110 nationally. Over the last four games, quarterback Terrance Owens has thrown more interceptions (five) than touchdowns (four), and the offense went seven straight quarters without a touchdown until the third quarter last week at Buffalo. Campbell didn’t say as much, but identifying ways to get into the end zone is a likely priority.

"Anytime you get time [off] in football I think one of the things you really go back to is attacking the fundamentals of who you are," Campbell said. "I think it’s a great time to do those things and we look forward to that."

By today, give or take, the Rockets will shift their focus to a Ball State team that is bowl eligible and claims no bad losses. The Cardinals (6-3, 3-2) have won three in a row after dropping back-to-back meetings with division leaders Kent State and Northern Illinois by a combined 14 points. Quarterback Keith Wenning (17 passing TDs) orchestrates an offense that leads the MAC with 473.2 yards per game.

Neither Campbell nor his players will admit this, but Tuesday’s outcome might be irrelevant aside from top 25 considerations. If the Rockets can close the regular season with mid-week wins at Northern Illinois and at home against Akron, the Ball State result will be of no consequence. Toledo, in that scenario, would win the West and advance to the MAC title game Nov. 30.

"Everything we want right now is right there in front of us," Fluellen said.

Contact Ryan Autullo at: rautullo@theblade.com 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.



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