COLUMBIA, Mo. — It wasn’t until Nov. 6 of last year that the University of Toledo suffered its second loss, falling at home to Ball State after a charmed climb up the national polls.
The Rockets this season already are saddled with a second loss, and Saturday’s date was only Sept. 7 — about two months ahead of 2012’s pace. The question surrounding Matt Campbell’s second season now shifts to whether the weight of an unprecedentedly tough schedule will sap the confidence of his team.
The coach said no way in the wake of a competitive 38-23 loss at Missouri.
“Not this team,” Campbell said. “Not this team.”
He was asked to expound.
“I just think the make up of the football team. It’s been witnessed the last two weeks.”
Toledo’s undoing in the opener at Florida involved physical mistakes, with the speed and power of the Gators rendering the Rockets helpless. Against Missouri, which offers a milder taste of Southeastern Conference flavor, the mistakes were mental. Many of them were made by the quarterback.
Terrance Owens continued his downward spiral with three interceptions, the last of which killed a chance to crack into a 15-point deficit with more than nine minutes to play. Another came in the end zone to finish the first half. Another fell literally into the hands of a defender for a 70-yard touchdown.
Owens, who has gone long periods of his career without an interception, has thrown four to start his senior season. His completion percentage is 37.
“Just can’t turn the ball over in critical situations,” he said.
Almost a year ago to the day, Owens produced a four-touchdown effort in a win at Wyoming to secure the job outright over Austin Dantin. Fast forward a year and his mistakes are hindering a team relying on its high-powered offense to take the lead while its defense matures. The Rockets went the first six quarters of the season without a touchdown before Owens ran in from four yards after halftime.
“You can’t make mistakes and beat these kind of teams,” Campbell said.
It wasn’t until he reached his lowest point — letting the ball slip out of his hands and into Missouri’s Markus Golden’s clutch for a 70-yard touchdown — that Owens settled. He authored consecutive touchdown drives to cut the Tigers’ lead to 24-23 with 4 minutes, 22 seconds left in the third quarter. A 59-yard Bernard Reedy kickoff return began the drive in which Owens scored with his feet.
Owens found Alonzo Russell streaking freely for 41 yards for the next score. The hookup, on third-and-1, was one of four third-down conversions on the day. A few others ended with a dropped pass.
“The mentality of this football team is to fight you,” Campbell said.
The comeback chance was a tease. Missouri responded with a touchdown drive in which Toledo seemingly missed a tackle on every play and Cheatham Norrils was called for pass interference in the end zone for a second time.
Toledo responded with a three-and-out, in which left tackle Josh Hendershot was beaten badly on a third down incompletion. Hendershot struggled all day on third down, drawing false start penalties three times. Jeremiah Detmer’s rugby punt hit one of his own players at UT’s 41, setting up a 10-play Missouri TD drive that ensured Tigers coach Gary Pinkel would escape a scare from his former school. Quarterback James Franklin ran three times on the series and converted a fourth-and-3 with an option.
“We just lost contain of the quarterback,” said Junior Sylvestre, whose 13 tackles led UT.
The defense, similar to against Florida, played OK. It produced a first-half burst with an interception by freshman Jordan Martin sandwiching two drives featuring two sacks a piece. Balancing that success were three, 10-play TD drives.
Running back David Fluellen (111 rushing, 100 receiving) accounted for 211 of UT’s 387 yards, and Detmer extended his consecutive field goal streak to 22, hitting three in the first half.
The schedule offers no rest to the weary. The Rockets this week will host Eastern Washington, the Football Championship Subdivision champion two years ago. Fortunately for Campbell his team is healthy. It suffered no major injuries battling two SEC opponents and oppressive heat. The coach also insists his team’s psyche is unscarred.
“It’s not been an easy two weeks, and some of it’s been self-inflicted,” he said. “But the one thing I’m proud of with our football team is we continue to fight and we continue to battle. As long as we continue to do that we’re going to be a darn good football team.”