University of Toledo players arrived to the football building Friday in a jovial mood, carrying on laughter and conversation as they filtered into a meeting room to begin preparation for their next opponent.
Based on that scene, the team’s mental health is not a concern two days after their designs of winning a Mid-American Conference title disintegrated in a third consecutive loss to Northern Illinois.
Their physical health, on the other hand, is troublesome. Two key offensive players are nursing injuries that could sideline them Tuesday for the regular season finale against Akron, where the Rockets will try to appeal to bowl game committees that could be faced with difficult decisions.
Coach Matt Campbell disclosed that running back David Fluellen suffered a high ankle sprain in Wednesday’s 31-24 defeat, and confirmed that quarterback Terrance Owens was sidelined at practice most of last week with a lingering ankle injury.
Campbell did not say whether either would be ready to go Tuesday when the Rockets honor 18 seniors in a game to be televised nationally by ESPN2. Owens was not expected to participate in Friday’s practice, and a better understanding of Fluellen’s availability should be known this weekend.
"I don’t know if we will have his services on Tuesday," Campbell said of Fluellen, whose 1,460 rushing yards are second in the nation behind the 1,504 of Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch.
Fluellen re-entered Wednesday’s game after sustaining the injury in the second half, but soon was relegated to the sideline for the remainder of the contest.
Campbell does not believe Owens’ injury, which has bothered him most of the season, is linked to a statistical dropoff during the last month. In fact, he disagrees with the notion Owens has regressed, basing his opinion on circumstance rather than numbers.
Quality defenses, crummy weather, and shortcomings of his supporting cast are the culprits, Campbell insists. Of the three interceptions Owens threw Wednesday, at least two are forgivable. One came after Bernard Reedy fell on a corner route near the goal line, and another after Cordale Scott was beaten to the inside on what Campbell said "wasn’t a very good route." A heavy pass rush induced the final pick.
Owens is completing only 56 percent of his passes the past four games, recording two touchdown passes and five interceptions.
"He’s been through a lot," Campbell said. "He’s dinged up and hasn’t been 100 percent, but I am proud of our quarterback. I believe in our quarterback, and he’s one of the main reasons we sit at 8-3 today."
Campbell monitored his quarterbacks in pregame warmups, presumably assessing the health of Owens, who did not participate in practice without restrictions until two days before the game. Campbell’s main concern, he said, wasn’t if Owens could play but for how long.
"T.O. is one of the toughest players I’ve ever been around," said Reedy, who eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards this season. "I knew he was going to play."
Senior Austin Dantin, who received first-team reps last week, would start if Owens can’t play.
Though the Rockets no longer can realize their goal of advancing to the MAC title game, Tuesday’s outcome could be vital to their bowl game aspirations. With six MAC teams eligible, Toledo’s chance of receiving an invitation to one of the three league-affiliated bowl games could suffer with a third straight loss.