One month from today, Matt Campbell will turn 34, still a young man, though aged perhaps by the stresses of a profession with few easy days.
Campbell has been the University of Toledo’s football coach for 22 games, and exactly half have been decided by seven points or fewer.
His teams have fallen in overtime, and prevailed in double overtime. They’ve won a bowl game by denying a two-point conversion, and dropped from the Top 25 by surrendering a late touchdown.
More often than not, though, Campbell’s teams have limped away from these 60-minute wars in triumph, a point of pride that has placed them in the Mid-American Conference title race with one month to go.
In Saturday’s 28-25 comeback win at Bowling Green, the Rockets evaded jaws of defeat for the second week in a row and improved to 7-4 in nail-biters under Campbell.
Things are looking bright this week around the Larimer Building, where the tenants are readying for a telling final four weeks of the season starting Saturday with a home test against 1-7 Eastern Michigan. (Last year’s score in Ypsilanti: UT 52, EMU 47).
Football is a funny game, one in which a razor-thin outcome can swing the public’s opinion from praise to condemnation.
Had quarterback Terrance Owens been stopped Saturday before he scrambled for 17 yards on third-and-26, or had he not found Alonzo Russell in the front of the end zone a play later, Campbell’s team would be all but eliminated from the title hunt with two losses.
Had Navy’s kicker not pushed an extra point wide right in double overtime the week before, Campbell and his coaches may have drawn the ire of message board yahoos and know-it-all writers.
As it is, Toledo at 5-3 (3-1) is meeting or exceeding preseason expectations.
“Two years ago we really struggled at closing out or winning that tight game,” Campbell said Monday.
In 2011, with Campbell in his final season as Tim Beckman’s offensive coordinator, Toledo lost three games by a combined 11 points and finished 9-4.
“That’s something we’ve certainly improved on,” Campbell added. “But the credit goes to those kids.”
Campbell spoke to the resiliency of Owens, who tossed winning TD passes in consecutive weeks to overcome an early season slump. He also praised senior linebacker Ethan Kagy, whose tackle of BG quarterback Matt Johnson inside the 1-yard line began a huge momentum shift. The Falcons were penalized for a false start the next play, on fourth-and-goal, and settled for a third-quarter field goal.
“We don’t like being in those situations, but at the same time we’re very experienced in those type of situations,” defensive end Jayrone Elliott said.
Many of the 11 games under Campbell decided by more than seven points weren’t exactly blowouts. Double-digit wins in 2012 over Coastal Carolina, Central Michigan, and Akron were one-score games in the fourth quarter, as was a 41-15 bowl game loss to Utah State. This season the Rockets trailed Missouri by one point in the fourth quarter of a 38-23 loss and led Eastern Washington by two points in a 33-21 win.
“We put ourselves in those situations at practice,” said receiver Bernard Reedy, who caught the game-winner from Owens against Navy. “Two-minute drills, situation drills. The offense is always down in practice [on the scoreboard] because coach Campbell doesn’t really like us. He likes the defense.”
Campbell loves this team, a point he has emphasized since Toledo started 0-2 with road losses at Florida and Missouri.
“One of the things I’ll say about the last two games is the first part of this season really made this team comfortable in being in those kind of football games,” Campbell said. “I wouldn’t have wanted to play this schedule with any other football team. That wasn’t just because I knew we’d have a chance to win those games, but if we didn’t win those games, with the maturity of the guys playing we would have the ability to handle that.”
SHORT YARDS: Running back David Fluellen (lower leg injury) will play Saturday if he is able, Campbell said. Fluellen left Saturday’s game on the opening drive. ... Linebacker Junior Sylvestre was named MAC West defensive player of the week after recording three sacks and 12 tackles. ... EMU coach Ron English said he’s not sure if he will start freshman quarterback Brogan Roback. Roback, of St. John’s Jesuit, made his first career start last week at Northern Illinois completing 7 of 17 passes for 109 yards in a 59-20 loss. Usual starter Tyler Benz (6 of 15, 64 yards) finished the game.