When the season began, depth on the defensive line was a strength of the University of Toledo football team.
My how times have changed.
Injuries to three starters early in the year proved debilitating not only for the obvious reason but for the strain induced to their replacements. A deep rotation that once consisted of nine guys floating on and off the field has been reduced substantially, and as a result production has suffered. After registering multiple sacks in each of the first six games, the Rockets have averaged less than one in the five games since, a drop off likely reflected by an overworked line that is without the deep pool of reinforcements it once had.
"Has that limited our ability to rush the passer?" coach Matt Campbell said last week. "I would definitely say that’s a possibility. Yes."
A strong punch up front was lacking Wednesday when Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch achieved Football Bowl Subdivision lore by becoming the first player to pass for 400 yards and rush for 150 yards. Toledo sacked Lynch once, applying pressure infrequently. That was an improvement from the previous week when the Rockets failed to record a sack for the first time in a loss to Ball State.
"The last six games we’ve played a lot of football and there hasn’t been many games where we had blowout wins," Campbell said. "Our guys have played darn near every snap."
No one’s workload has increased more than ends Ben Pike and Hank Keighley, who were thrust into starting roles six weeks ago after T.J. Fatinikun and Christian Smith sustained season-ending injuries at Western Michigan. The team continued to flourish, winning four in a row, but the line’s success waned after the departure of two top-line guys depleted its depth. Pass rush specialist Jayrone Elliott, who leads the team with six sacks, never developed into a player who is relied upon in obvious run situations. Keenen Gibbs, who sustained an ACL tear in the spring game, did not return, and Grant Pleasant, whom Campbell said might play never did. Additionally, true freshman Allen Covington saw his playing time decrease and apparently has moved to tackle. Lending a hand was Colby Kratch, who began the year at tight end and logs a handful of plays per game.
"Obviously the plays have increased and that probably took some adjusting," said Keighley, whose 7.5 tackles for loss are most on the team.
The interior part of the line reverted to full strength with the return of tackle Danny Farr, who missed six games with a knee injury. All together, Farr, Fatinikun, and Smith, will have missed 22 appearances if the Rockets advance to a bowl game.
Depth next season could again be a concern. Of the 18 seniors who will be honored Tuesday in the final regular season game against Akron, six of them — or one-third — are defensive linemen. Bidding farewell will be four ends — Keighley, Pike, Fatinikun, and Kratch — and tackles Farr and Phil Lewis. The Rockets must replace three line starters in 2013 for the second year in a row. Smith, a junior who is expected to recover from a knee injury, will be the lone holdover.
At least one more game, and likely two, are left to be played this season. Although Akron has yet to score a win over a FBS opponent, its quarterback poses a formidable challenge to a Rockets pass defense that ranks No. 120 in the nation. Senior Dalton Williams leads the MAC with 303.2 passing yards per game, and has thrown a league-high 25 touchdowns. Making his evening uncomfortable will be vital for a Toledo team trying to avoid ending the regular season on a three-game slide.
"I feel like we’re right where we want to be," Keighley said. "Senior year, trying to lead, and playing to the best of our abilities."
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.