I know it is way too early for this, but the season will be here before you know it. If I am going to do 12 team previews, plus some unit previews for our own team it is time to jump into the fray. That means we begin with our first opponent of the year: The Toledo Rockets
2008 Record: 3-9 (2-6 MAC West)
Blog Representation: Midnight Blue and Gold
Series with Purdue: Tied 2-2
Last Purdue win: 9/1/2007 at Toledo 52-24
Last Toledo win: 9/6/1997 at Toledo 36-22
Toledo won in the Big House last year with one chance. Purdue hasn't done that in 43 years, with Drew Brees and multiple chances. That is just depressing.
Last Season for the Rockets:
2008 was a forgettable year for the Rockets, save for one game. In that game, Toledo joined a list that includes Appalachian State, Northwestern, Utah, and Oregon in accomplishing what Purdue has been trying to do for over 40 years: beating Michigan in the Big House. It was an ugly game, but a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown and a late missed field goal by the Wolverines sealed a 13-10 victory in Ann Arbor for the Rockets. It was the first victory ever for the MAC over Michigan. It is also a loss that should be laid solely at the feet for Rich Rodriquez, as a team with as much talent as Michigan had zero business losing to a team like Toledo last year.
The most noteworthy accomplishment for Toledo in 2008 didn't even occur on the field, and it wasn't a good one, either. The football program is currently mired in a nasty point-shaving scandal that would dominate the national headlines at a BCS school. Toledo also changed coaches in the offseason, as Tom Amstutz stepped down after eight seasons as head coach (and 32 years in some coaching capacity at Toledo) with a 58-41 career record. The Rockets are looking to re-start one of the MAC's better programs in 2009, and new head coach Tim Beckman will be leading the way.
Toledo's only other victories in 2008 came against Eastern Michigan (41-17) and Miami (OH) (42-14). The Rockets had one point losses to bowl teams Fresno State and Central Michigan, with the Fresno State loss coming in double overtime on a missed two-point conversion. Most of the time, Toledo wasn't competitive. They lost seven games by double-digit margins.
Toledo is the one team in the MAC that regularly convinces BCS opponents to come to the Glass Bowl. Pittsburgh, Purdue, and Kansas have stopped by in recent years, while Colorado comes this year. They also have a neutral site game in Cleveland scheduled against Ohio State. Their other non-conference road trip will be to Miami to take on Florida International. They will face a fairly competitive MAC West schedule that includes fellow Purdue opponent Northern Illinois as well as familiar foe Central Michigan. They will also have a second trip into the state of Indiana later in the year when they travel to Ball State.
Tim Beckman is a defensive-minded coach, having recently served as the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma State. The Toledo offense last year did a decent job of taking care of the football, but it often struggled to score points. It also didn't help the defense was borderline awful for most of the year. Many of the same players we saw in our win to start the 2007 season return, specifically senior quarterback Aaron Opelt.
Opelt was good, but not great a year ago. He threw for 2,176 yards while completing 225 of 376 passes. His 13 touchdown passes wasn't great, but he didn't give the ball away very often with only seven interceptions. He had all but five of the passing attempts for this team last season and is the unquestioned starter going into fall camp. He will be asked to run a spread attack that has some talented receivers. Some are even predicting that Toledo is one of the favorites in the MAC, though I tend to disagree since much of the experience they have returning hasn't delivered on the field.
The expected starter in the backfield is senior DeJuane Collins. He was solid, though often injured, last year with 700 yards rushing and five touchdowns. Opelt was a productive runner as well. Sacks limited him to negative yards rushing on the year, but he did manage five rushing touchdowns as the ground attack provided most of the team's offense. Against us in 2007, Collins went for 70 yards and a score, mostly while the game was still close in the first half. Half of those yards came on a 35 yard scoring run that gave Toledo its only lead at 7-0 in the first quarter.
Collins is far from the only talented back, as sophomore Morgan Williams had a 1,010 yard season with six touchdowns a year ago. He had a huge game against Miami (OH), going for 330 yards and three scores. Collins is the bigger back with Williams being more of a speed option. Both have enough talent to help Toledo open up its passing game.
The passing game should be very dangerous as 6'5" senior Stephen Williams will present a matchup problem with our cornerbacks. We have historically struggled against bigger receivers, mostly because Brock Spack never realized it was legal to make in-game adjustments against them. This game should give us a good idea of how new defensive coordinator Donn Landholm handles such a situation. Williams had 71 catches for 781 yards and 8 touchdowns a year ago. Along with the departed Nick Moore (78-779-1), those two accounted for more than two thirds of Toledo's receiving yards.
6'4" Kenny Stafford and 6'5" Danny Noble are expected to be the other two top targets for Opelt, but neither has a whole lot of in-game experience. Still, their size is reason for concern. Our experienced secondary cannot let them run wild all day.
Toledo's offensive line returns four players with starting experience and has plenty of size. This will allow the Rockets to both run block and give Opelt time to throw to his big receivers. This allows our own offensive line to have a nice tune-up before getting into the rest of the schedule. All five expected starters are around 300 pounds and they do have experience in opening holes for Williams and Collins. If their line is allowed to dominate our experience defensive line we will not only be in trouble for this game, we will struggle for the rest of the season because we will only see better units.
As much as Toledo's offense looks promising because of its returning talent, the defense was awful last year. It takes a particular strong brand of suck to lose a game in which your offense scores more than 50 points. I like to call it "Pulling a Colletto" in reference to our 59-56 loss at Minnesota in 1993. That is exactly what Toledo did in a 55-54 loss to Fresno State last year. You can't blame them for going for two early and trying to win the game on one play at the end of the second overtime. They had zero confidence in their defense's ability to stop the Bulldogs.
The Toledo defense gave up over 31 points and 381 yards per game. They were awful against the run, giving up 178 yards per game against teams that weren't exactly Navy or old-school Nebraska and Oklahoma. The pass defense was a little better, but who needs to pass when they can't stop the run. It really is a testament to how awful of a coaching job Rich Rodriguez did last year when his team managed a meager 10 points against them.
Toledo had very little pass rush, which is a good thing for us. This should be a good game for new starter Joey Elliott to get his feet wet behind what should be a much improved offensive line. Toledo managed just 10 sacks as a team all last year. That was actually an improvement, as statistically they had the worst pass rush in the country in 2007. CFN thinks the raw talent is there, but it has yet to produce.
At linebacker, Archie Donald was far and away the team leader in tackles a year ago with 119. Barry Church was second with 93. He is a promising safety prospect that has some decent prop potential. Church is actually moving up from the strong safety position as Toledo looks to go with a three linebacker look instead of two.
A year ago, Toledo's secondary had to make an awful lot of tackles because the run defense was so poor. It should be worse this year as Church moves from safety to linebacker and Tyrell Herbert is gone. Incoming freshman Jermaine Robinson looks to be a promising prospect, but this will be his first game at the division 1 level. He will have to be out of this world to dominate in his first game. The corners didn't do a great job as the team managed just 10 interceptions a year ago. Four of those came from Herbert, who had the 100 yard return against Michigan.
Toledo special teams:
Toledo features a solid kicker in senior Alex Steigerwald. He was 16 of 21 on field goal attempts last year with a long of 48 yards. That 48-yarder ended up being the game winner in the fourth quarter at Michigan, as it actually hit the crossbar before going over. He actually struggled mostly at a closer range, with three of his five misses coming from less than 30 yards.
Bill Claus will return as the punter, but he struggled last year averaging less than 40 yards per kick. His coverage teams did allow one return for a touchdown last year, but Claus was good in short field situations. He had 15 punts downed inside the 20 last season, so that is a positive testament to his coverage teams.
Toledo had very little of a return game to speak of in 2008. On punts Nick Moore averaged just 6.2 yards per return. On kickoffs Greg Harris was the most effective returner, but he averaged just 21.5 yards per return and had a long of only 41 yards. We should have some room in our own return game, as Toledo gave up more than 25 yards per kickoff return a season ago.
We can expect a mixed bag in this one, as it is the Division 1-A head coaching debut for both Beckman and our own Danny Hope. Toledo's strength appears to be its offense, while our will likely be our defense. It is a good test to see just hope improved our defense is, especially since it will likely need to carry us in the first few games. I am concerned about the size of their receivers, especially for a MAC team, but that will only help us in the long run. Nationally, many previews are very high on Toledo for a MAC team. Most of them are even higher on Northern Illinois, so a win in this game is paramount if we're going to beat the Huskies.
As stated earlier, Beckman is a defensive-oriented coach. He will demand, and need, more production out of a defense that has done little the past few seasons. It is the reason he now had the head coaching job at Toledo. Still, our offense should being facing one of the easiest defenses it will face in 2009.
This should be a better Toledo team than the one we handily beat to start the 2007 season. We are playing at home and we simply need to win this game. In an odd bit of symmetry, Our last head coach had his first game at Purdue against the Rockets. Coach Tiller lost at Toledo 36-22, then won the next six games. I would gladly trade a loss to the Rockets for the same result, as it will mean wins over Oregon, Notre Dame, and Ohio State. I am, however, a realist. The bottom line is that we have to win this game if we are going to have any chance at going to a bowl in 2009.
There will be one person in the spotlight for this game, and that is Joey Elliott. Everyone is questioning his ability to lead this team. His desire to coach and experience in the program gives me the confidence that he can be a leader, but he has yet to show us he can physically do the job. This is his first chance to do so. If he has a solid game it will silence some of the doubters.
It seems like everyone is making their debut in this one. New coordinators Landholm and Gary Nord will have their first games at Purdue as well. We will also see a variety of receivers take the field. A positive showing by all three groups (coaches, receivers, and quarterback) will answer a lot of questions.
If our defense really is as improved as I think it is, they will respond to the challenges set before them here. I also like that our offense gets to warm up against a defense that has no discernable pass rush and corners that are not strong in pass defense. Expect the running game of Jaycen Taylor, Al-Terek McBurse, Ralph Bolden, and Dan Dierking to take some of the pressure off of Elliott as well. I think this will be close for a half, but in the end we will pull away thanks to the defense.
Purdue 24, Toledo 14