With the season being a little more than two months away now and the hype finally turning from the boring world of speculation that is recruiting to real live football action I felt it was time to start talking about who we will actually be playing on the field this year. Thus begins a weekly look at each of the 12 opponents for the 2007 season, starting with our opener against Toledo.
For the record I do not normally like going on the road to face a MAC school. No real good can come from it. If you’re a Big Ten program and you win, you really haven’t done anything to get the fans excited except what was expected. If you lose then you’re already in a deep hole before your first home game. Unfortunately as the MAC schools continue to get better we’re going to see more and more of these types of games. This season Indiana, Iowa, and Penn State will join us on the road at MAC schools. Wisconsin (at UNLV) and Minnesota (at Florida Atlantic) also have road games against non-BCS opponents, as the reality is that only Michigan and Ohio State seem to still be above these types of road games.
As we all remember the Joe Tiller Era started with a road trip to Toledo, and it is a bizarre coincidence that the most important season of his tenure begins the same way. I remember thinking after that 36-22 loss that this Tiller guy was no different than our previous coaches. I was only a senior in high school at the time, weighing my options between going to Purdue and Bradley University. Though I had been a Purdue fan for years thanks to my father (School of Pharmacy 1975), I had not yet decided to go to his alma mater. It was the next weekend’s shocking win over Notre Dame, which I attended with my brother-in-law and his brother that went a long way to helping me decide my college choice. I know it’s pretty lame to decide on a school simply because of football, but it meant a lot to me that Purdue simply had football, while Bradley did not. That 1997 team did much to help me decide on where I went to school, and I would argue that had we not followed that Toledo loss with a six-game winning streak and bowl appearance I may not have gone to Purdue.
But that was then and this is now. In 10 years we still have not progressed to the point where going Toledo is considered to be an automatic win. Any time a MAC team gets a home game against a Big Ten squad it is a bear trap because the MAC team will be playing to make their season in front of their home fans with the upset. That’s what we face in this game, and the Rockets are more than capable of pulling it out.
Last season for the Rockets:
Toledo has long been one of the premier programs in the MAC, which makes last year’s 5-7 record more of an aberration than the norm. They lost a triple overtime game at Iowa State while pulling out a double-OT game at home against Big 12 opponent Kansas. This shows me they are not afraid to go against bigger programs, so they certainly won’t fear us. Some strange losses in MAC play came against Ball State, Eastern Michigan, and Kent State. While the Cardinals were a respectable club and held their own well against us, IU, and Michigan, the other two are head-scratchers. EMU has long been at the bottom of the MAC and the Golden Flashes were a rather mediocre 6-6. They lost to football powers Army and Buffalo, which should say something. It should be noted though that 2006 was Toledo’s first losing campaign after 12 straight winning seasons.
Here is where the big fear begins. Jalen Parmele is a big 222-pound bruiser of a running back who went for 1,170 rushing yards last season. Since everyone short of Timmy form South Park seemed to have a big rushing day against us last year this could be a huge problem. Behind him there is plenty of raw talent in DaJuane Collins, Dontae Jones, and Morgan Williams, but not a whole lot of experience. They lost two key backups with Scooter McDougle deciding it was okay to shave points and Richard Davis deciding it was okay to break in to someone’s house, but the talent is there for a big game against us.
Last season the real struggle for the Rocket offense came from the quarterback position. Aaron Opelt appears to be the front-runner for the job, and he is the type of quarterback that could cause us some problems. He’s a spread quarterback who is not afraid to run the ball if necessary. He’s not quite a proven passer yet, but allegedly had a big spring and is expected to be one of the best quarterbacks in the MAC. If he is on his game from day one and our defense isn’t, we’re in serious trouble.
The receiving corps has five players over 6’4" with some decent speed in the mix. Since we have some experience now, but not much size in our own secondary, that could be a problem. Still, they haven’t done much on the field to this point. They have been disappointing, but are waiting for a breakout performance. As long as it comes after September 1st and makes our defense look better in hindsight as the season plays out that is fine with me.
Quite simply, we are going to have to be sharp from the opening kickoff or we’re going to be in a deep hole early on. With the home crowd behind them, if we allow Toledo’s offense to get a few early scores through the air, then grind out the clock with their running game it could be an easy win for Toledo. This is a game where we need to get some big stops early and set the tone defensively. It is critical that we don’t let them set the tone with their offense, and that we keep their potential exactly where it is now, as big potential and not actual results.
We could very well be looking in the mirror at our own defense. Toledo returns nine starters from last season, but those starters were unable to stop anyone short of the French army. Toledo surrendered more than 30 points six times and gave up more than 40 three of those times. They feature an aggressive type of defense that functions best when it is getting to the quarterback and in the backfield instead of sitting back in coverage. If they are getting into the backfield consistently they can cause us some problems.
Their defensive line is nothing special, as two starters return and they are expected to be okay against the run, but not generate much of a pass rush. There isn’t much size, but there shouldn’t be fatigue issues as their will be plenty of rotation with fresh guys off the bench. As long as our O-line stays strong we should be fine. Most of their pass rush comes from blitzing linebackers anyway.
The linebacking corps lost its top playmaker last season, but relies mostly on speed and quickness to the ball. Much like the line it is expected to be solid, but not spectacular. Greg Hay is expected to be the star here, and they will likely throw several different looks at us.
Toledo’s strength on defense is easily its secondary, specifically safeties Tyrell Herbert and Barry Church. Both were Toledo’s top tackler’s last year and are expected to be the top two safeties in the MAC. Both like to play all over the field, and will also get involved with blitzing as well as coverage. The corners are not that great though, as not a single returning corner had an interception last season. This is a hard-hitting group that tackles well, but doesn’t have a lot of speed. We should be able to use Bryant, Lymon, and Orton’s speed to our advantage. Spreading out the field while complimenting with the running game will be critical. This is a defense that attacks rather than covers, and if we can keep them guessing wrong we won’t have any trouble.
Against their defense it looks like it comes down to coaching. If we have the actual foresight to realize we’re a Big Ten team with a solid offensive line and two solid running back we can dictate the pace here. Run the ball with Sheets and Taylor while mixing up the pass well with our receivers should make things easy for us. They hit hard, so as long as we hold on to the ball and wear them down by moving the chains we shouldn’t have any problems. An offense as experienced and talented as our should be able to adapt to whatever this unit throws at us, and they won’t simply shut us down like Penn State and Wisconsin did last year.
Last year we proved we could do a whole lot of nothing by racking up yard but not necessarily points. Now we need points.
Toledo Special Teams:
There’s not much to say here, as Toledo didn’t do much field goal kicking last year. Both kickers are back, but they only hit on 7 of 8 field goal attempts, none of them longer than 39 yards. Our coverage units were solid last year, and should be able to handle their return units.
One obvious plus is that that Toledo has this game at home, as MAC teams always get up for these types of games. We’re going to have to take the crowd out of this game early, and not let them get back into it. If we can negate this effect it will give us a huge advantage.
One big negative is the point-shaving scandal they are facing. It’s not exactly huge news like it would be if Ohio State or some big-name was facing it, but it has been a cloud during the off-season. This is their first game on the field since the news broke; the real question is how the team will handle it.
Then again, it’s not like we have zero off the field issues to deal with either.
The more that I think about this game the more I like it. It’s a good "no excuses" game for us. Last year was our year for growing up while beating up on lesser teams. This is a good test for us because should we pass it, we know we’ll be a better team. If we fail it, we know we’re in for a long season. We should win this game if we’re going to have any type of success this season. That doesn’t make it a lay-up, and the challenge will be good for us. It is a "no excuses" game because we’re going to need to be on from the start, a slow start will kill us. We need to be sharp early on and this is a good way to make sure of that. If the defense is sharper and can handle things, while the offense plays at the level it is more than capable of playing at, we will be fine.
We lost the last time here, but rolled off six straight wins after it. Doing that this time would mean wins over Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Michigan. I’m not deluded enough to think that. If we can’t beat Toledo what makes us think we can beat a better Central Michigan team two weeks later?
If the defense comes out slowly though and allows them to set the tone with their running game, get the crowd into it, and the quarterback runs wild, we know it will be a problem all season. If the offense is flat, Painter throws a couple early picks, and the unit as a whole does not exert its will like we should be able to do, we’re in for a long night.
We pull one out on the road by about 10 points or so. This is a season of no excuses, and we need to start with a statement right here. Purdue 31, Toledo 21 (and yes, I think we’ll make a field goal here, just another where we need to have no excuses, only results).