Toledo Rockets (2000: 10-1)
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Coach and programTo be honest, it’s hard to decide which is the better story for the Rockets this fall: the fact that they return eight starters on each side of ball and an All-MAC kicker, or that new coach Tom Amstutz has told the second-ranked rushing and scoring offense in the league to tear up its old playbooks.
That’s right. Toledo too will spread the field and throw the ball around the yard this fall. And Amstutz has got some experienced help to make it happen. Coordinator Rob Spence was most recently on the staff at Louisiana Tech, which used star quarterback Tim Rattay and four or five receivers on every down to twice defeat UT in recent seasons.
“I know from playing [Louisiana Tech] that I’m very impressed with that kind of offense,” Amstutz said. “It really tests an opposing defense and is good at getting guys into one-on-one situations with tacklers.”
It’s a fresh start for everyone, especially fifth-year senior running back Chester Taylor (5-11, 205) who will get more chances to show the NFL scouts he can block and catch the ball. He could go for 2,000 yards if this offense has any success at all.
The Toledo defense led the MAC in scoring and rushing defense, and turnover margin (+2.0 per game). That group also gets a new coordinator in former Virginia Tech assistant Lou West. There will be a star made this season in Toledo at the Whip linebacker position.
Oh, and by the way, this Rockets team has more than just a simple MAC West title in mind. Toledo ended the fall at No. 27 in both the Associated Press and USA Today polls and in the top 25 of five of the computer rankings used to derive the Bowl Championship Series.
Just as Marshall broke into the national spotlight in ’98 and ’99 to get some top 25 votes, Toledo is counting on it. The Rockets made a statement last fall in destroying Penn State, 24-6, in State College, and have a chance to grab national attention early if they beat Minnesota. After that, UT should be a hefty favorite in every game except perhaps the Oct. 6 date at Ohio. Going 11-0 is not a pipe dream; it’s a serious expectation this year at the Glass Bowl.
OffenseSenior Tavares Bolden (6-1, 205) was last year’s All-MAC quarterback in a vote of the league’s coaches. It’s hard to quarrel with the choice, as he led the league’s winningest team and threw just four interceptions in a full season of action. He also gave up just one fumble and was sacked only three times.
MAC running backs begin and end with Taylor. And if he weren’t so darned healthy, folks would know that the group here is as deep as any in the league, Northern Illinois and Ohio included.
Taylor had 141 yards and two scores in that win at Penn State last fall, and is the second-leading returning ground gainer in the NCAA, at nearly 5.9 yards per carry. He had 1,470 yards rushing in 11 games, and was seventh in the NCAA in rushing and scoring.
If the backs are proven, the receivers certainly are not. Top senior legacy Mel Long, Jr. finished his career in 2000 with a team-high 51 grabs in setting a UT career mark of 175.
The top returnee is a former slot receiver, junior Donta Greene (5-7, 180), who caught 31 passes last fall (and 30 as a freshman) but whose size will keep him a zone-buster in the slot or catching the inside screen.
The offensive line was just flat dominating in 2000. There’s no way a starting quarterback is sacked just three times and backs run for 254 yards per game if this group isn’t getting it done.
Three guys with starters’ minutes return for 2001, though the two who are gone, by the way, were also All-MAC first-teamers.
Defense and special teamsToledo allowed just 11.4 points per game, and that started up front. Senior Leo Frierson (6-3, 245) started 10 of 11 games at the end opposite All-MAC performer Dejaun Goulde and had three sacks as a defensive co-captain.
Just like Goulde, All-MAC linebacker Kevin Rollins won’t be there to clean up all the tackles in the middle of the field. Rollins had 95 stops last year and 300 for his career, and led the team with 10 sacks from inside backer.
But three returnees have meaningful experience, and junior David Gardner (6-2, 231) put up tremendous numbers in only nine games as the other half of that inside tandem (82 tackles, 12 for losses).
In this system, there are only three defensive backs. Senior free safety Andy Boyd (6-2, 203) topped the squad with parts of 95 stops and three interceptions, bringing his career total to nine.
Senior Todd France (6-3, 185) is reliable and has gotten All-MAC mention of every sort (first team, second team, honorable mention) his first three seasons in the league. France was also second-team Academic All-America last fall while hitting 15-of-19 field goals and all 49 PATs.
Bottom lineIt’s a huge risk, changing this power offense which has done the Rockets so proud in recent seasons. But Amstutz remembers Louisiana Tech laying the lumber to some of his best defenses and thinks that the spread is the future. To be honest, a lot of coaches agree right now.
Just as there was no denying Marshall a 13-0 season in ’99, this should be Toledo’s year. And if they do run the table, the MAC West champ plays host to the league’s championship game at a Glass Bowl that averaged 104 percent of listed seating capacity last season. After years of complaining about locker rooms and having to go to Huntington every year, the Rockets should get to say, “Detroit here we come!”