Coming into the season head coach Matt Campbell and coordinator Tom Matukewicz gave no assurance University of Toledo’s defense would be better, suggesting only it would look better.
They said the secondary would have greater length than those in past seasons, and linemen would satisfy the staff’s desire for a beefier front. Linebackers would be equipped with skills to make plays in space.
Left unspoken is Campbell and Matukewicz likely figured their defense, with numerous new starters, was a year away from reaching an acceptable standard. At the midpoint of this season, that game plan has been altered to reflect a rapidly improving unit gaining attention around the Mid-American Conference for its penchant to create turnovers and stop the run. The Rockets in ranking near the top of the league in most defensive categories are instilling confidence in the Campbell-Matukewicz marriage and demonstrating belief that a decade-long run at Toledo of mostly bad defense may be ending.
“I’m pleased with where we’re at, but I’m not satisfied,” Matukewicz said last week as the Rockets, without a Saturday game for which to prepare, refueled for the season’s homestretch.
The Rockets rank third in the MAC with 397.3 yards per game — an improvement of 76 yards from Matukewicz’s initial season a year ago.
Matukewicz is not coy of his desire to be a college head coach, which is why he made the bold move after the 2011 season to leave his job as a position coach at Northern Illinois to join the Huskies’ rival and be Campbell’s signature hire. The two appear in lockstep at every turn, from their philosophy on the recruiting trail (bigger is better), to their belief that a team’s offense and defense must work in concert, to the statistics they emphasize.
They place high value on third down stops, red zone success, and creating turnovers. Toledo’s MAC rank in each: third, eighth, and second. Two out of three isn’t bad. Stiffening in the red zone will be prioritized in the final six games beginning with a home test next week against Navy and its dynamic triple-option attack.
“The biggest thing I like is the mentality those guys have brought to the table,” Campbell said of a unit with only two senior starters. “It had been such an issue here with people saying we haven’t played great defense. These guys are so young that they don’t know, they don’t care, what the past has been about. I think their mentality is they know they have a chance to be really good. I think they’ve got a little bit of swagger to themselves.”
The 142.7 rushing yards Toledo allows are second fewest in the MAC. The 25.2 points opponents are scoring are the fewest since the 2005 Rockets defense gave up 21.8.
Asked what he appreciates most about his defense, Matukewicz said, “They don’t need an audience to play. They don’t need ESPN. They don’t need any of that.”
Increased confidence in the secondary’s coverage skills has enabled Matukewicz to alternate coverages between man and zone. The result has been a more aggressive scheme, leading to 15 turnovers, which is more than all but five teams in the country.
Three of the turnovers came on consecutive possessions after halftime in Toledo’s most recent game, a 47-20 win over Western Michigan.
Six different Rockets have intercepted a pass and seven different players have forced a fumble.
Most impressive is the defense scoring a touchdown in each of the past three game.
Linebacker Junior Sylvestre, who has parlayed a quality offseason into a breakthrough junior season, accounted for two of the scores. Another linebacker, Trent Voss, had the other.
“We don’t block any fat people,” Matukewicz said. “If you’re a fat person, we don’t block you. So if you get tackled by the fat guy then you gots to go.”
Asked why the defense is better, Campbell didn’t hesitate. He pointed to the past two recruiting classes delivering high-end talents such as starters Treyvon Hester at noseguard, Chase Murdock at middle linebacker, and Chaz Whittaker at free safety. In all, 10 defensive players from the 2012 and 2013 classes are getting fair amount of playing time. Redshirt freshman linebacker Jaylen Coleman, who is expected to return soon from a knee injury, will make 11.
Under Toledo’s previous staff, in which Campbell was offensive coordinator to head coach Tim Beckman, offensive coaches were tasked with recruiting offensive players and defensive coaches targeted defensive players. That model no longer exists.
There’s now a specific formula Campbell and Matukewicz adopted for how to recruit each position group on defense. All coaches are invited to use it.
“Once Tom came on board and we hired our staff we spent the first month hashing that out,” Campbell said.
“Who do we want to be and what do we want to look like? We have the right guys in the right spots right now. They care, and they’re being well coached. But that part is probably most important to the whole piece of the puzzle.”