Before the 2014 season, University of Toledo coach Matt Campbell sat down with his staff to completely revamp the way the Rockets practiced.
In painstaking detail, they outlined what they wanted out of spring practice, summer lifting, preseason camp, and daily practices during the season. The UT coaches had one thing in mind: November.
Their system will face its greatest test this season. The No. 20 Rockets have four games in November against the four best opponents from the Mid-American Conference.
With the MAC title game and possibly a major bowl game on the line, the Rockets' season — for better or worse — will be made in November.
“These next four games,” said quarterback Phillip Ely, “it's gonna be the gauntlet for us a little bit.”
UT (7-0, 4-0) begins the stretch with its traditional bully on Nov. 3.
Northern Illinois has beaten UT five straight times, the single biggest reason why the Rockets haven't been able to reach the MAC title game in 11 years.
If not for some unfortunate timing, however, UT might have passed the NIU test last season. Injuries to the Rockets’ top three quarterbacks forced UT to play Dwight Macon, a wide receiver, as its emergency quarterback. The Rockets lost the game 27-24, which led to NIU winning the West Division.
After going 3-4 during November during his first two years as UT's head coach, Campbell said he saw a much different Toledo team emerge in last November.
“I thought last year was our best we've played in a long time,” Campbell said.
UT won three of its four November games a season ago, including a fifth straight win against Bowling Green. The month helped set up UT’s GoDaddy Bowl rout of Arkansas State, its most complete game of the ’14 season.
“We played the best we possibly could last November,” Campbell said. “I thought through some really tough circumstances and situations, we gave ourselves a chance to win and [we] won some big football games. I thought we played really good football in November.”
UT’s first four MAC opponents this season have a combined seven wins, and true to form, UT pounded each one of them. The Rockets won every game by double digits, though they understand well that November games are different.
For one, the month means a new schedule in the MAC, which switches to weeknight games to acquiesce to ESPN’s wishes. UT will play three Tuesday nights and a day game on Nov. 27, the Friday after Thanksgiving.
The games themselves are different, too. Against NIU or BGSU, Ely warned that some of Toledo's early-season mistakes can cause a different outcome. UT fell behind by 18 against Massachusetts before storming back, and a similar scenario can mean a crucial loss at this stage of the year.
“It’s kind of good that we made those mistakes then, because now we can correct them and go into this game fully prepared,” Ely said.
“I can’t throw three picks [like the UMass game] these next few games, or we’re going to lose. Things like that,” he added. “Mistakes we made early on, we can't make them now.”
Luckily for UT, its team is in fairly good health entering next month. Only one starter, linebacker Jaylen Coleman, is out for the year.
Most of Toledo’s injuries have come to role players. Running backs Kareem Hunt and Terry Swanson have returned from early-season injuries, as have linebackers Chase Murdock and Ja’Wuan Woodley, and defensive end Trent Voss. Campbell said Monday that safety DeJuan Rogers should return against NIU.
UT’s top 22 — as well as the rotations as most positions — find themselves in a good position, especially when compared to a 2014 season in which UT suffered significant injuries to key players all throughout the season.
Undefeated and in relatively good health, UT enters November in its best shape in decades.
“You hold your breath saying that,” Campbell said, “but I think going into it, I think we certainly are in good shape.”
NO AWARDS: For the first time this season, UT did not earn a weekly MAC award following a game.
MINUTES MEN: UMass suffered a number of injuries against UT, particularly when the Rockets were on offense. Asked about how many injured players UMass had, Campbell doubted the validity of some of the injuries and questioned whether it was a tactic designed to slow UT’s hurry-up offense.
“I'm interested on some of those injuries to see if some of those were to stop the clock,” Campbell said. “I don't know if those were all real.”
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