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There was a time not long ago the University of Toledo defense was trending upward, showing promise after a decade of dysfunction.
A unit with many playmakers created turnovers, at one point scoring a touchdown in four straight games. Efficiency on third down and in the red zone was adequate, ranking somewhere in the middle of the Mid-American Conference at the season’s halfway point.
None of those pillars for good defense established by coordinator Tom Matukewicz still rings true today with the Rockets sputtering to the regular-season finish line with a noon kickoff in Akron.
Toledo is 12th in the 13-team conference in both red zone and third down defense and has forced just four turnovers in five games, well off the pace after six games, at which time the Rockets had forced 15 turnovers.
Coach Matt Campbell is challenging his defense to finish what it started in September and parts of October before regressing into a late-season swoon for the third year in a row.
“That’s a fair assessment,” Campbell said. “I would like to see us play a really good game defensively.”
Toledo (7-4, 5-2 MAC) may need to win today to ensure a bowl invitation for the fourth straight season. Akron (4-7, 3-4) is not the pushover it was the past three seasons when the Zips posted a string of one-win campaigns.
Recent second halves for Toledo have been particularly painful, extinguishing momentum built after a quality opening 30 minutes. Buffalo erupted after the break two weeks ago for 470 yards and 41 points, clawing deep into a 38-point deficit. The Rockets escaped embarrassment, winning 51-41.
That same Jekyll-and-Hyde approach failed the following week when Northern Illinois and quarterback Jordan Lynch cut loose for 350 yards and 28 points after halftime, flattening a fatigued Toledo defense that allowed second-half touchdown drives of 85, 65, 99, and 77 yards. The Rockets led 10-7 at the break before withering away 35-17.
Campbell pointed to three issues contributing to the backsliding of a defense that has fallen to ninth from third in the MAC in total defense during the past five games: Youth, inexperience, and even leadership.
Thirteen freshmen or sophomores are listed on this week’s two-deep. There are five seniors.
“All of those things are coming into one,” Campbell said. “But we wouldn’t be where we are if we hadn’t played so well defensively.”
Injuries are few, though it may not be coincidence the struggles began after linebacker Trent Voss broke his arm Oct. 19 in a 45-44 double-overtime win against Navy. Voss, who had 5½ tackles for loss among his 60 stops, gave the Rockets a rare skill in that he could cover receivers and mix it up in the run game.
“It’s very important for us to finish the season off strong, especially for the seniors,” said junior linebacker Junior Sylvestre, who is tied for first in the MAC with 110 tackles. “We want to play all four quarters real hard this game and have a pretty good game.”