Toledo's gambles pay off

Toledo running back Astin Martin jukes Central Michigan's Robert Kiel en route to scoring a touchdown.
Toledo running back Astin Martin jukes Central Michigan's Robert Kiel en route to scoring a touchdown.

MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. - Tom Amstutz rolled the dice several times yesterday - and he never lost.

The University of Toledo defeated Central Michigan 31-13 to remain unbeaten in the Mid-American Conference, converting on five of five fourth-down plays in the first half, including a fake punt that involved a 352-pound offensive tackle running for a 24-yard gain.

“We know coach Amstutz is going to be willing to go for it on fourth down,” UT sophomore quarterback Bruce Gradkowski said.

“We have some good play-calls for fourth down and we executed them well today. Those are things coach Amstutz is not afraid to do - he's not afraid to gamble now and then.”

Amstutz went for broke - twice going for first downs from inside his own territory - and snapped the ball directly to tackle Erik Faasen on a fake punt attempt from the UT 29. Faasen rumbled 22 yards, and the Rockets' drive eventually made its way to the end zone.

“On those fourth-down plays, the coaches, they put it in our hands, and that's a great feeling,” Faasen said. “And once we're successful, the confidence builds, and it makes for long drives that wear down the defense.”

The Rockets (5-2, 3-0) did that, and more, pounding the Chippewas (2-5, 0-4) for a stadium record 643 yards of offense - the fourth-highest total in school history.

With Amstutz drawing blackjacks and repeatedly beating the house - he also called a screen pass from inside his own end zone and the play went for 11 yards - Toledo pulled out to a 28-7 halftime lead and was never threatened.

“It's a decision I make at the moment, but that's also our style of play,” Amstutz said about the fourth-down calls. “That's what we believe. I get the feel of the game, and I put it on the players. I'm giving them a chance to win the game.

“At times, it's high-risk, but I also believe if you really did a study on fourth-down percentages, you'd find out they work out in favor of the offense.”

Toledo's first possession ended in a three yard scoring run by Astin Martin, but the drive was kept alive by a five-yard Martin carry on a fourth down play near midfield. Martin gave UT a 14-0 lead with one-yard run that followed his 36-yard scamper, but the whole thing was set up by Gradkowski converting a fourth-down play from the UT 45.

“It probably starts with my mental instability,” Amstutz said, jokingly, “but then it goes to confidence in the coaches and our players, and having a feel for the team and a belief in the players. I think it gives them confidence. Once they do it once, they believe they're going to do it again. We put the ball in their hands to make those plays.''

Trinity Dawson broke a 43-yard run just before the end of the first quarter to get the Rockets close again, and his two-yard TD run was followed by the third of four Jason Robbins extra points for a 21-0 lead.

Central Michigan got a one-yard TD run from Terrence Jackson to make it 21-7 early in the second quarter, but the Rockets had more fourth-down aces up their sleeve.

Midway through the second quarter, Toledo ran the fake to Faasen to keep another drive moving, and after two more fourth-down conversions by Gradkowski on the same possession, Martin scored his third touchdown from a yard out to make it 28-7.

“It's a neat feeling, knowing he has faith in us to make those fourth down calls,” Gradkowski said. “You keep the drives still going, so it's big. It just gives everyone more confidence. With coach Amstutz, you never know where four-down territory is.”

Robbins added a 35-yard field goal in the third quarter for a 31-7 advantage, and Central Michigan made it a bit closer with a nine-yard scoring pass from Grant Arnoldink to Damien Linson to set the final at 31-13 after a two-point conversion failed.

Amstutz said his fourth-down calls were just “calculated risks” that he felt kept his team on course in a critical MAC game

“This is a championship game,” he said. “In order for the other two wins that we had in conference to mean anything, we had to play this one. If we don't come in here mentally and physically ready to play, we're going to get beat - plain and simple. We don't have time to mess around. We want to attack and play our hearts out every game.”