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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 72: Toledo

Step one: light fuse under rocket. Step two: detonate on Bowling Green's 50-yard line.

Life after Tom Amstutz won’t be so bad after all, it turns out. The Toledo fixture bowed out following the 2008 season after spending more than a generation with the program, first as a longtime assistant before taking over as the head coach in 2001. His replacement, Tim Beckman, earned praise for his job as a defensive assistant at Bowling Green, Ohio State and Oklahoma State prior to tabbed for his first lead job. Yes, Beckman is a defensive-minded coach. Yet the Rockets allowed 452 points last fall, the second-most in school history.

Conference
MAC, West

Location
Toledo, Oh.

Nickname
Rockets

Returning starters
11 (6 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 88

2009 record
(5-7, 3-5)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 86

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    Arizona
  • Sept. 11
    at Ohio
  • Sept. 18
    at Western Michigan
  • Sept. 25
    at Purdue
  • Oct. 2
    Wyoming
  • Oct. 9
    at Boise St.
  • Oct. 16
    Kent St.
  • Oct. 23
    Ball St.
  • Oct. 30
    at Eastern Michigan
  • Nov. 9
    at Northern Illinois
  • Nov. 17
    Bowling Green
  • Nov. 26
    Central Michigan

Last year’s prediction

I’m very high on Toledo, despite its ranking. The Rockets return an immense amount of talent, and I would not be surprised in the least if the team made a very strong push to finish in the top two in the West, undoubtedly the tougher of the MAC’s two divisions. So how good can Toledo be? With a strong non-conference finish, as good as 8-4. That would put the Rockets at 6-2 in the MAC and battling Central and Western Michigan for the top spot. I’m not ready to got that far, but I do have the Rockets right alongside Northern Illinois and Ball State at the third spot in the West.

2009 recap

In a nutshell Early-season promise was marred by a disastrous finish, as Toledo saw its bowl hopes evaporate in a 1-4 stretch over the final month of year. Surprisingly, as touched on above, it was the Toledo defense, not the offense, that failed this team in conference play. The Rockets held only two MAC opponents to less than 31 points — winning both, not surprisingly — and allowed an average of 41.3 points per game in each of final four setbacks. Unfortunately, the offense was there: 356 points, more than six more points per game than the team averaged in 2008. The next step is putting the package together.

High point A 4-3 start to the year, punctuated by a thorough dismantling of Colorado on national television and a sweet, come-from-behind win over Northern Illinois. However, even during this bright start there were signs of inconsistency. Sandwiched between a win over Ball State and the Northern Illinois victory, for instance, was a 58-26 home loss to Western Michigan; W.M.U. led 41-12 at halftime.

Low point A poor finish. The Rockets lost four of five to end the season, beating only 0-12 Eastern Michigan and, most embarrassingly, losing to two-win Miami (Ohio). That win stood as Miami’s lone victory in MAC play.

Tidbit Toledo won at least eight games in each of the six seasons from 2000-5, a school record. The Rockets have not won more than five games in each of the four years since, however, a program first since 1975-78.

Tidbit (MAC edition) As a whole, the MAC has a winning record against only one other conference in the F.B.S.: the Sun Belt, against whom the MAC’s 13 teams have combined to post a 67-43-4 mark. Toledo, as one would think, has won three of four games against teams from the Sun Belt. The Rockets are also 27-23-1 versus Conference USA teams, though the program does not have a winning record against any other F.B.S. programs: 0-3 all-time against the A.C.C.; 3-4 against the Big 12, with each of those victories coming since 2006; 6-15 against the Big East; 5-14 against the Big Ten; 2-3 versus the Mountain West; 1-3 against the Pac-10, with that one win — against Arizona State — coming via forfeit; and 4-4 against the WAC.

Former players in the N.F.L.

9 S Barry Church (Dallas), QB Bruce Gradkowski (Oakland), OG John Greco (St. Louis), OT Nick Kaczur (New England), P Brett Kern (Tennessee), WR Lance Moore (New Orleans), RB Jalen Parmele (Baltimore), RB Chester Taylor (Chicago), WR Stephen Williams (Arizona).

Arbitrary top five list

Best minor league team names
1. Lehigh Valley IronPigs.
2. Casper Ghosts.
3. Albuquerque Isotopes.
4. Toledo Mud Hens.
5. Lansing Lugnuts.

Coaching

Tim Beckman (Findlay ’88), 5-7 after a single season. While Beckman was unable to bring the Rockets back into bowl play, he did lead the team to a two-win improvement over its disappointing 3-9 mark in 2008. From day one, Beckman has seemed like a good fit at Toledo. For starters, he has experience coaching both in the MAC and in the state of Ohio. From 1998-2004, Beckman was the defensive coordinator and the assistant head coach at Bowling Green. Over that time, Beckman served under Gary Blackney (1998-2000), Urban Meyer (2001-2) and Gregg Brandon (2003-4). Bowling Green’s best defense under Beckman was the 2001 unit, which allowed only 19.5 points per game. In 2005, Beckman was hired by Ohio State as its secondary coach; the Buckeyes went 10-2 that season before going 12-1 and participating in the B.C.S. Championship Game in 2006. Beckman spent the 2007-8 seasons as the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma State. The Cowboys went 16-10 over this period and participated in two bowl games, winning one. Oklahoma State won nine games in 2008, then the second-highest win total in school history; all four of its losses came against teams in the top 25, and three (Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech) came against teams then ranked in the top three of the A.P. poll. In all, the last seven teams on which Beckman was an assistant have spent at least one week in the top 25 each season. He brings a breadth of experience to the job, though only time will tell how his time as an assistant will translate to his first head coaching job. Solid, if not spectacular returns in his first season.

Players to watch

The Toledo offensive line welcomes back four starters, losing only the services of left guard Jared DeWalt. This group is led by senior center Kevin Kowalski, who thrived upon being moved to the middle of the line last fall after starting 22 games at right guard over his first two seasons. Fellow senior Nate Cole will flank Kowalski at right guard, while juniors John Morookian and Mike VanDerMeulen will bookend the line. Morookian has started 23 of his first 24 games at right tackle. Depth at tackle will be tested by sophomore Danny Farr’s move to the defensive line; Farr played in a handful of games on the blind side last fall. Toledo will need sophomore A.J. Lindeman and redshirt freshman Zac Kerin to step up and provide depth on the edge of the line. Junior Phillip Manley will get first crack at the open spot at left guard.

On paper, the loss of receiver Stephen Williams will be difficult for Toledo to overcome: the departed starter accounted for 79 catches for 1,065 yards a season ago. In reality, I’m far less concerned about the receiver corps than most, partly due to the return of sophomore Eric Page, a freshman all-American in 2009, and the development of several fresh faces ready to play important roles in this offense. The first is junior Kenny Stafford, who has shown an ability to get deep (14 receptions for 222 yards last fall) in limited action; he’ll likely hold a starting role in September. Tight end Danny Noble (26 for 257) is a very solid intermediate option. While junior Tim Cortazzo and sophomores Julian Bellinger and Jimmy Davidson have yet to make a significant impact for Toledo, each is expected to battle for a spot in this new receiver rotation.

Here are two names to remember: true freshman James Green and junior Cordale Scott. Both were on campus during the spring, Green as an early high school graduate and Scott as an Illinois transfer. It remains to be seen if Scott will receive an N.C.A.A. waiver hardship in time to be eligible for this fall; Green is ready, willing and able to have an immediate impact. I don’t think Toledo will struggle locating depth at receiver. Even if the Rockets are thin at the position, Page (82 receptions for 1,159 yards and 7 scores) will catch everything in sight.

The starting quarterback will most likely be sophomore Austin Dantin, who outplayed teammates Alex Pettee and David Pasquale during the spring. Dantin would replace departed starter Aaron Opelt, something Dantin is somewhat familiar with: he started three games in Opelt’s stead last fall, completing 66.4 percent of his passes for 962 yards and 4 touchdowns. Dantin might not have Opelt’s experience, nor Opelt’s ability — yet, he’s a slight work in progress — but the sophomore is Toledo’s best option. I think he’ll do fine.

Toledo has options at running back. The first is junior Morgan Williams, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards as a freshman before taking on a smaller role in 2009. His diminished totals were at least partly due to missed time, as Williams did not participate in each of Toledo’s first two games. The good news is that Williams is plenty rested, ready to again challenged the 1,000-yard mark. Fellow junior Adonis Thomas (151 yards rushing last fall) will likely be Toledo’s top backup at the position, while sophomore Jake Walker and redshirt freshman Darius Reeves will fight for the leftover snaps.

I was surprised by how poorly this Toledo defense played in 2009: 37.7 points per game allowed, 241.4 yards allowed through the air and only 18 sacks, all totals ranking in the bottom third in the country. Expect to see plenty of new faces on this side of the ball, particularly on the line, which I’ll touch on below.

The Rockets started three true freshmen in the secondary last fall, including at both cornerback spots. In that case, expecting an improvement against the pass, even with the loss of star hybrid safety Barry Church, should not be too much to ask. Sophomores Byron Best and Daxton Swanson are the favorites at cornerback, tough each must hold off JUCO transfer Taikwon Paige and seniors Desmond Marrow and Myshan Veasley-Pettis to retain their starting roles from a season ago. Swanson is also battling an injury which limited his snaps during the spring. The third returning sophomore starter is Jermaine Robinson (58 tackles, 3 sacks), who started 10 of 12 games at free safety last fall. Replacing Church will be a chore, though Toledo has high hopes that junior Isaiah Ballard’s special teams ability translates to the back end of the defense.

Toledo knows what it is going to get from senior linebacker Archie Donald: consistency, for starters, as well as stout play against the run. Donald has led the Rockets in tackles in each of the last two seasons, posting 116 (3 for loss) a year ago, and giving this otherwise questionable defense at least one sure thing. He’ll be flanked by a new face, as Toledo must replace fellow linebacker Beau Brudzinski. His replacement should be sophomore Dan Molls (43 tackles, 1.5 for loss), who played pretty well as a rookie, though fellow sophomore Robert Bell and senior Terrell Willis are also options.

Position battles to watch

Defensive line Any change in attitude from this Toledo defense will be keyed by a revamped line, which welcomes into the mix five potential contributors coming off redshirt seasons. Two returning starters will lead the way: senior ends Douglas Westbrook and Alex Johnson will most likely begin the season in the starting lineup, though Johnson was limited during the spring due to injury. Sophomore T.J. Fatinikun, who played well as a true freshman last fall, is also in line for meaningful action. Three of those players coming off redshirts, Hank Keighley, Christian Smith and Ben Steele, will also challenge for snaps. The competition at the two tackle spots will be very fierce. Juniors Johnathan Lamb and Malcolm Riley currently stand atop the depth chart, but expect players like Phil Lewis, Johnnie Roberts, Danny Roberts and Ben Pike to remain viable options when Toledo resumes practice in the fall. Pike and Roberts, like that trio at end, are coming off redshirt campaigns. No, the depth chart along the defensive front remains fluid. But the Rockets will have far more depth along the line, a very good thing.

Game(s) to watch

Early-season MAC games against Ohio and Western Michigan, both on the road. Toledo’s record in non-conference play won’t matter if it can open 2-0 in conference play; even at 2-4 through Oct. 9, the Rockets will be in the driver’s seat in the West division race. An away date with Northern Illinois on Nov. 9 could dictate the final standings in the division.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell The MAC West will take a step back in 2010, with Central Michigan’s reign atop the conference likely coming to an end, giving Toledo a good chance at landing its first division championship since 2004. While I have Northern Illinois taking the West, I do think we’ll see the Rockets return to bowl play after a four-year absence. Barely, however. This team does have several issues to contend with, including a very difficult opening first half of the season. This is a concern: Toledo ended last season poorly, and would love to have an easy first month in order to develop some much-needed momentum. That won’t be the case in 2010, as Toledo should feel very fortunate to enter the heart of MAC play with a 3-3 mark. Even if the Rockets are 2-4, however, I still think this team can squeak out a bowl bid. This is due to what looks like a strong offense, even if quarterback remains a slight concern. I expect to see the defense improve, thanks to an added year of experience in Beckman’s system. With the money Toledo has put into refurbishing its facilities and the way Beckman has recruited, its only a matter of time before the Rockets are the dominating program in the West division.

Dream season Beckman surprises the MAC by leading Toledo past Northern Illinois in the West division, landing the Rockets a spot in the conference championship game.

Nightmare season I think most can agree Toledo’s best days are ahead of it; nevertheless, a 3-9 finish would be very disappointing for a program looking for a sense of progress heading into next season.

In case you were wondering

Where do Toledo fans congregate? I’m all about the little guy here on the Countdown, so here are two independent sites that talk Toledo sports: The Launch Pad and The Rocket Report. For recruiting news, check out Rocket Digest. As JPH pointed out below, Let’s Go Rockets is another resource.

Up Next

Who is No. 71? Our next university’s publishing imprint — its own “Oxford University Press” — was founded by the author of the 1997 literary analysis “Irish Poetry After Joyce,” originally published by Notre Dame University Press in 1985.

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Comments

  1. george howley says:

    Next up: Syracuse University Pfess=the Orangemen

  2. Boca Rocket says:

    next up:Wake Forest

    Actually the Toledo Offense contributed to the late season slide. UT’s starter at QB, Aaron Opelt tore his rotator 5 games into the season. Going through a rollercoaster of 4 QB’s, the Toledo Offense turned the ball over-going from one of the best turnover margins to one of the worst. Combine that with a bad punting game, it often put UT’s Defense in bad field position.
    The Arizona Wildcats open at Toledo in a nationally
    televised early September Friday night game on ESPN. Rockets are 5-1 against the last 6 BCS opponents in the Glass Bowl. It should give a good indication where the Rocket program is at. BTW, it’s DE Westbrook and WR James Green.

    Paul: Nice points above. Thanks for the contribution. And I made those fixes, thank you.

  3. Jim Narby says:

    next up: Nebraska

  4. JPH says:

    No mention of LetsGoRockets.com as a fan zone/resource ? Maybe next year.

  5. Dan Savage says:

    I think Toledo could steal a win against Arizona Septepmber 3rd in the glass bowl. Ohio and Western Michigan will both be very tough on the road. Purdue is no hope. Wyoming is a winnable homecoming game. Boise should knock some sense into Toledo, I hope Toledo can just score in that game. Ball state always plays Toledo tough so a win but a har fought one should be the case. Kent State i hope is a good win crossing over into the east division. Eastern Michigan is a win for sure. NIU at northern is such a tough place to play and I expect them to top the west.Bowling Green rivalry game is played early this year so a hopeful win at home is to be expected. Central Michigan is a good team with a new coach and QB, this final game will determain bowl Elgibility for both teams i believe.

    Recap: wins- (WM,Wyoming,Kent,BS,EM,BG) losses- (OU,Purdue,Boise,NIU) throw ups -(AZ,CM)

  6. Boca Rocket says:

    Purdue is a bottom half Big Ten team, plain and simple.The Boilermakers are coming out of the Spring with alot of injuries including QB Marve coming off ACL surgery and losing their best RB. Arizona is a PAC 10 contender and probably will finish 3rd or 4th in the Conference.
    Not to say the Rockets can’t pull an upset against the Wildcats, but UT’s chances are greater to comeback from W. Lafayette with a “W”.

    Paul: Fair points. I’m not crazy about the Boilermakers, but I think I’m a little higher on them than most. You’ll see Purdue come off the board relatively soon. And Toledo is 100 percent capable of taking that game on the road, especially if the offense comes together quickly.

  7. Dan Savage says:

    I thought that too in 2008 when we played them at home, and Toledo got ran over in the glass bowl. Toledo plays good at home against teams from the west(Fresno State, Colorado) running into a MAC stadium like they own the place. Arizona is better than Purdue yes, but the element of surprise is great 1st game of the year.

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