UT looks to end season on strong noteWritten by Nate Pentecost | | email@example.com
It was the obvious choice for UT head coach Matt Campbell back in early September. Terrance Owens had turned the corner, finally playing with the consistency necessary for the University of Toledo to do away with its much maligned two-quarterback system.
Taking sole control of the offense after a season-opening overtime loss at Arizona, Owens made senior signal caller Austin Dantin a virtual afterthought, leading the Rockets to eight-straight victories and their first national ranking in 11 years.
A model of consistency, Owens completed 66 percent of his throws for 12 touchdowns against three interceptions through UT’s first seven games. Then came the downturn.
His numbers took an understandable dip against a solid Cincinnati defense during an exhilarating win over the No. 21 Bearcats Oct. 20. But his lack of production continued the following week as Toledo squeaked by 1-6 Buffalo despite a career-high 228 yards rushing and two touchdowns from UT running back David Fluellen.
Owens’ apparent regression eventually manifested itself in the loss column Nov. 6 as Ball State toppled the No. 25 Rockets at the Glass Bowl to make UT’s stay in the Top 25 a brief one.
Then came his disastrous three interception performance at Northern Illinois Wednesday. All three led to touchdowns as the Huskies clinched their third-straight Mid-American Conference West division crown over the Rockets.
Including the division-deciding loss to Northern, Owens completed 56 percent of his passes the past four games, throwing for two touchdowns against five interceptions. After averaging 42 points the first four conference games, it’s no coincidence the Rockets have mustered an average of 26 the past four overall.
Season-defining back-to-back losses have inevitably caused the Rocket faithful to begin questioning why a campaign which just weeks ago appeared destined to result in a MAC title has taken such a disappointing turn. Naturally, the search for such answers begins with Owens and his diminished numbers.
The reasoning goes beyond statistics though, according to UT head coach Matt Campbell.
“I wouldn’t say he’s struggled the last four weeks,” Campbell insisted. “Maybe statistically it shows he hasn’t played as well as he did early in the season, but you have to look at the teams we’ve faced and some other things.”
Certainly Fluellen’s six-straight 100-yard rushing performances heading into the Northern game made Owens’ cannon of an arm slightly less essential. Wielding the nation’s second-leading rusher was particularly fortuitous during the Buffalo game as steady rain made the ground game a far more practical option.
The running back’s 182 ypg average during his six-game rampage does little to account for Owens’ increasing number of turnovers in the games that followed, though.
As his coach informed the media Friday at his weekly press conference, Owens was held out of practice until a few days before Toledo’s showdown with the Huskies, as he continues dealing with a foot injury which has lingered since the non-conference portion of the season.
“He’s been dinged up,” Campbell said. “I give T.O. a lot of credit because he still played really well in the first half against Northern.”
Campbell believes the injury became more of an issue as the NIU game wore on, evident by the fact that Owens completed 15 of 17 passes for 162 yards with a touchdown and an interception in the first half, but made good on just 7 of 15 attempts with two untimely picks in the second.
Even still, Campbell said he never considered switching out Owens for Dantin.
“I know he’s taken a lot of heat for the interceptions,” Campbell said. “But if you go back to the game film we had a guy fall down, and in some of those other situations he might not have been able to help things. He did his job but unfortunately they made big plays.”
Owens avoided turnovers when Toledo hosted the Cardinals the game prior, but the signal caller failed to complete 50 percent of his passes and Fluellen’s 200-yard performance was not enough to supplement the Rockets sputtering aerial attack.
“Those are teams you have to play at a really high level against to beat,” Campbell said. “You can’t turn the ball over or make mistakes, Terrance knows that and he’s only going to get better.”
It’s no secret a spread offense such as Toledo’s cannot sustain itself long without a steady passing attack. With Fluellen’s availability uncertain after suffering an ankle injury against Northern, Owens efficiency will be that much more critical as the bowl season approaches.
“It’s been a good ride for everybody but I think it’s been a great learning experience for Terrance,” Campbell said. “I’m proud of our quarterback and I believe in him. He’s one of the main reasons we sit at 8-3 today.”