Youth in revolt: Young Rockets must prove themselves on the roadWritten by Mike Bauman | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Toledo Head Coach Tim Beckman and his Rockets’ football team know that they’re young. They know that they haven’t had a winning season since 2005. They know that they had just 11 seniors on their roster entering the 2010 season, of which only four were starters in the season opener last week. They know how those growing pains felt in that disappointing 41-2 loss to Arizona on national television last Saturday at the Glass Bowl. And, they know that first game was just one of many tests they will face this season.
Toledo will be on the road for four of its’ first six games in a schedule that features seven bowl teams from 2009, including a matchup on the “Smurf Turf” Oct. 9 with No. 3 Boise State, who defeated No. 10 Virginia Tech 33-30 on Monday.
“We’ve talked about it with the players since the schedule came out,” Beckman said. “They’re very well aware of how we have to peak earlier this year than we did last year. We just have to do it on the road.
“As I learned a long time ago when I was a graduate assistant for Pat Dye—he says, ‘If you don’t learn to win on the road, you’re never going to win a championship.’”
Two things the Rockets can hang their collective hat on was that their effort never wavered in their opener with the Wildcats, and also that the score was not necessarily indicative of how the game went. Toledo trailed Arizona just 7-2 with 9:19 remaining in the second quarter last Friday. However, a missed tackle on defense and an interception on offense by the Rockets in the final four minutes of the quarter led to two more touchdowns for the Wildcats and made the score 21-2 by halftime.
Toledo gave up 518 yards on defense against Arizona, including 413 through the air. Wildcats’ junior quarterback Nick Foles completed 32 of his 37 passing attempts for 360 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. Teammate and junior wide receiver Juron Criner had 11 receptions for 187 yards and one touchdown on a 32-yard toss from Foles. Criner’s yardage total was four more than the entire Rockets’ offense, which only amassed 183 yards in the game.
“The pass was still the problem,” Beckman said. “We’ve got to be a better pass defensive team in the big chunks. We had four passes over 20 yards, which is still too many. A couple of the long runs were all based on not proper fills back on the short pass and taking the proper leverage angle. We need to make those plays in the open field, but the effort was not a question.”
Another plus for Toledo was holding an Arizona rushing attack that averaged 159.4 yards per game in 2009 to just 105 yards—this against an experienced, senior-laden offensive line that counting the tight end averaged roughly 6-4 and 310 pounds.
Sophomore defensive end and Perrysburg graduate T.J. Fatinikun welcomed the challenge of facing such a skilled group. Fatinikun had three tackles in his first game as a starter for the Rockets, including a forced fumble, pass breakup and sack. He believes facing such a tough opponent so early in the year will only serve to benefit the young Toledo team in the long run.
“I felt like we did pretty good,” Fatinikun said. “I was really excited just because one, you’re on ESPN, and two, you know that you’re playing a top team. That just gives you a motivation to just want to do so much better.”
Despite the youth and the tough schedule, the Rockets know they can do better than what that first game showed.
“It just motivates us to go out there and show what we really can do,” sophomore wide receiver and Springfield graduate Eric Page said. Page, who had 4 receptions for 43 yards against the Wildcats, is on numerous watch lists this year after leading all freshmen in the country last season with 82 catches and 1,159 yards receiving. “Arizona I don’t think was really pretty much our caliber. I think we can play a lot better.”
Page is just one of several offensive weapons at the disposal of sophomore quarterback Austin Dantin, who won the starting job this season after the departure Aaron Opelt. Last year, Dantin saw action in seven games as a true freshman due to injuries at the position, and went 2-1 in the three contests he started.
Together with Page, junior running backs Morgan Williams and Adonis Thomas, junior wide receiver Kenny Stafford, sophomore wide receiver Julian Bellinger and an experienced offensive line, Dantin knows he has the pieces to make this year’s offense difficult for opposing defenses.
“It helps me out a ton,” Dantin said. “It’s really [just] get the ball in their hands—let them go out and make the plays, don’t feel like you have to do everything. Just realizing that I just need to get the ball in their hands, let them be the players that they are, it really helps me out a lot.”
With a young roster, it will be up to older guys like senior cornerback Desmond Marrow to bring the right attitude and leadership day in and day out for the underclassmen to follow, especially given the challenges that lay ahead. Marrow made his first start in two years against Arizona and led the team with nine tackles.
After the combination of injuries he’s experienced and battled back from in his time at Toledo, Marrow knows what it’s like to face adversity and press on. Maintaining the right attitude is crucial, no matter what the score or situation.
“The younger guys, they look up to us,” Marrow said. “So if they see me with my head down, they’ll kind of give up mentally, and then it’s kind of like a trickledown effect. We’ve just got to lead more than ever with the younger [players].”