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Know thy Opponent takeover: Midnight Blue & Gold

With this entry I turn things over to you the reader for the coming week. I'll be up before the sun tomorrow to catch a 6:45 flight to Seattle. My parents decided to take the entire family on a cruise this summer, so any time you can get a free vacation, you take it. I have a few articles scheduled to publish on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Also, J Money from Boiled Sports will probably stop by once or twice if anything major breaks while I am gone. If anyone else wants to post anything feel free to use the FanPost feature. I'll check in when I can, but it likely won't be often.

Before I go, however, The Toledo blog Midnight Blue & Gold agreed to answer some questions about our season opener against the Rockets:


It's a blog, not a song

Hammer & Rails: Both teams are going through a coaching change at the moment, with the one that departed being a coach that accomplished quite a bit for each program before falling off. Talk a little bit about the Amstutz-Beckman transition if you would please. 

Midnight Blue & Gold: The transition seems to be going well.  Amstutz did great things for the Rocket program, but in recent years he was unable to compete with the rest of the MAC.  He lost his edge in both coaching and recruiting - factors that really hurt the Rockets, and compounded in the last few years to leave us high and dry and without many Ws.  Beckman has brought a lot of excitement back to the city of Toledo, the University, the fans, and most importantly, his football players.  The players have been given a new feeling of confidence and Beckman's discipline and competitive schemes are already showing results in the classroom (GPA), in the weight room and in disciplinary areas. Tom Amstutz was well respected and well liked by the community, the University and the program, and we expect that not to change. No disrespect to Amstutz, but Beckman is capable of doing things his own way and should be able to get the Rockets pointed in the right direction again.

H&R: Your offense seems to be returning a ton of experience, but it hasn't done very much. Is 2009 the year you turn it on?

MBG: It will be heading in the right direction this season, that's for sure.  Coach Beckman has brought in coaches who have national championship experience, both 1-A and 1-AA.  While great coaching alone can't win games, it should really help to have coaches who have been there, played in those games, and won. That type of experience is invaluable and we see that translating into more refined skills from our players and more robust play-calling. The offensive scheme should change quite a bit from what we've seen the last couple years with more direct attacks instead of trying the same trick plays over and over again (to no avail).  We return a lot of talent this season and with new guys filling some of the voids, there isn't any reason to believe that our offense won't be greatly improved this year and the next.

H&R: Can your defense be much worse than it has been the past two seasons? What is the biggest fix that coach Beckman will implement? 

MBG: It's no secret that we've had our share of defensive woes in the past two seasons but in several ways the Purdue and Toledo defenses performed similarly last season. With nearly identical stats in rushing defense ( P: 174.8 Y/G, T: 178.3 Y/G), opponent 1st downs/G (P: 19, T: 22) and interceptions (tied at 10), it's obvious that we've experienced the same type of defensive problems in our respective conferences. 

In order to right the ship and get our defense back in the game Beckman has to get his team to do two things. First, he has to instill confidence and get them to exude that confidence with enthusiasm. Big plays don't come from being timid. We're not talking about jumping at first motion and swatting at flies, but over the last two seasons, there were a lot of timid defensive plays where the player just put a hand up, tried to defend the pass/run and if that didn't work, that was just the breaks. That won't be acceptable anymore. 

In past years the Rockets have implemented a 4-2-5 defense with a rover used as part safety and part linebacker. This season, Barry Church will be utilized like a third linebacker; as a pass rusher and in pass coverage and this should allow us to open things up more. Beckman has to find a way to get his players in the backfield. He has to get his guys across the line of scrimmage and in position to put pressure on the QB and make him make a play. A smooth transition to this defensive look will be Beckman's second key to success.

H&R: Toledo has long been one of the most feared MAC programs. How do you guys regularly get BCS teams to come to your place and why did Amstuz' teams drop so suddenly in competitiveness? 

MBG: Toledo has had one of the best winning percentages at home for the decade (not counting the last few losing seasons - 2001 to 2005, we were practically unstopable) and the rest of the football world, outside the MAC, began to regard Toledo as a team that could hold its own. With wins over Navy, Penn State, Minnesota, #9 Pittsburgh, Michigan, (then MAC rival) Marshall, and Kansas (just to name a few), Toledo got the reputation of being able to hang with bigger fish than what the MAC had to offer.  For a team from a larger conference, Toledo is viewed as a good test. While not a "power program," we're still capable of showing up and playing some honest, hard-nosed football and that's appealing to coaches who need to test their schemes and see what their team can do, but doesn't want to schedule a cupcake. Toledo has eclipsed the rest of the MAC and proven that quality football can come from a "smaller" school. 

Amstutz's teams became progressively less competitive over the years due to two main factors that we touched on earlier, recruiting and coaching, and in this case, they became one and the same. Amstutz was unable to retain the best players in the area or entice better-than-decent players from elsewhere to come to Toledo. This led to less and less talent working through the system each year. When Amstutz took over the program from Gary Pinkel, there was a lot of talent in the program and in the pipeline. Slowly that worked its way through, and Amstutz just couldn't replace it. The last few seasons he has had players (with a few exceptions, hat-tip to Barry Church) that haven't really excelled at their positions and the results of that can be seen in our record.  Fewer wins and ugly defeats hurt recruiting; no one wants to come to a school and lose if you can be successful (and win) somewhere else. The two went hand in hand. 

The coaching program that plagued Amstutz was that he coached the same way with talented players as he did with less talented players. You can successfully throw a quick screen pass if the receiver can make a play after the catch. Running the ball right up the middle can work, if the back can hit the gap, make a move and explode on any opportunity. With teams at the beginning of Amstutz's tenure, that worked. That same coaching and play- calling with less talented rosters meant that more often than not, those plays collapsed. In the fray, we went through different identities: at times, we've been a running team with Chester Taylor and a stable of running backs since (Dawson, Parmele, Martin, Broussard, Collins), then a passing team with Bruce Gradkowski who was so dangerous through the air or on the ground --- but once that talent dried up and there was nothing to replace it, we stalled out. But the same plays were still called and the previous results expected. The plays didn't materialize and we started losing. Poor recruiting and less than stellar coaching brought us to our current position.

H&R: What does Toledo need to do in order to beat Purdue and start the season on a positive note? 

MBG: Toledo needs to show up to the Purdue game feeling confident in the new schemes and coaches, and play Toledo football. We've shown in the past that when the chips are down, this team can prevail. There will be plenty of new faces on the sideline but the basic principles are still the same. A more efficient offense and a stronger defense coupled with insightful play-calling and improved special teams play will allow us to face whatever Purdue brings at us. We need to play smart football and get out from underneath the shadow we've played under the past few years. Even if we don't win, a strong showing will provide us with the confidence we need to continue to progress and have a successful season. We have to face our demons in this first game, face some of the issues that have plagued us in the past two seasons and prove, to ourselves, if no one else, that we've fixed those problems - then we can progress from there. That's the key to starting our season on a positive note.