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August 13, 2012As the 2012 season approaches, BroncoBlitz.com will break down each opponent in the order they appear on WMU's schedule. Next up is WMU's Mid-American Conference opener against West Division favorite Toledo, at Waldo Stadium.
2011 in review
9-4 overall (7-1 Mid-American Conference)
Postseason: Military Bowl vs. Air Force (42-41 W)
Toledo, amazingly enough, has managed a 14-2 record in MAC play over the past two seasons and has no championship hardware to display for it. Their nemesis for now is Northern Illinois, who is 15-1 in that span and has won the past two MAC Championships, so needless to say, the Rockets are a bit tired of second place.
2011 in particular was really a season of frustrations for Toledo, even though on the whole a 9-4 season can't be considered bad. However, in the most important matchups, the Rockets couldn't get the job done for various reasons and a potential dream season became just another typical finish for one of the top programs in the conference.
While the Rockets opened the season with a 58-22 win over FCS New Hampshire, the next three games were not so kind. First came a trip to Ohio State, where an upset bid was turned aside late. This was followed by a 40-15 drubbing at the hands of Boise State at Toledo's Glass Bowl. But the real sting would come a week later in a matchup at Syracuse. While there were complaints about officiating after the game at OSU, nothing would compare to what happened to the Rockets in Syracuse.
The Orange scored a late fourth quarter touchdown in a tightly contested game to take a 29-27 lead, and the following extra point appeared to sail wide left. While it was called good on the field, the officials smartly decided to review the play upstairs. After a lengthy delay where multiple replays showed the ball passing in front of the upright, the call inexplicably stood. Toledo's would-be game winning field goal instead sent the game to overtime, where Syracuse eventually won.
Couple this with the Rockets' wild 63-60 loss to Northern Illinois that essentially cost them the West Division, and you'll understand why UT fans may have a bitter taste in their mouths about a fairly successful overall season.
Following a second straight bowl appearance, 2009-11 boss Tim Beckman is off to Illinois. In his spot is the now-youngest head coach in the nation, 32 year old Matt Campbell. Campbell took the job over in December after leading the Rockets in their Military Bowl win over Air Force. Campbell had spent the last three years as the Rockets' offensive coordinator, and was generally given a lot of the credit for making Toledo the best recruiting program in the conference. UT also benefited from Campbell being able to keep much of the staff in place, helping mitigate the transition between last year and next.
While the recruiting prowess of Campbell and the staff is unquestioned, it will remain to be seen how Campbell manages the head coaching position as a relatively inexperienced coach. Nonetheless, the transition should be less chaotic than most coaching changes, since systems and staff familiarity should be similar to 2011.
"Having a lot of continuity in the staff is really huge for me as we continue on," Campbell told BroncoBlitz.com at MAC Media Day. "To keep those people in place who have worked really hard to instill values in our program, I think that's huge to not have to teach new people our expectation level."
Key departures: WR Eric Page (1182 yd, 10 TD)
Key returnees: QB Terrance Owens (72.2%, 2022 yd, 18 TD, 3 INT), QB Austin Dantin (64.9%, 1404 yd, 15 TD, 4 INT), WR Bernard Reedy (762 yd, 19.1 ypc, 9 TD)
Toledo boasted the MAC's most efficient passing attack in 2011, and both quarterbacks in their two-man system return after putting up great numbers. The question for the Rockets will be if the QBs can perform at the same level without the supremely talented Eric Page, who accounted for 43% of UT's catches in 2011. Much like Jordan White for Western Michigan, Page was the guy that the Toledo quarterbacks looked to when they needed a key catch.
The Rockets return their top deep threat, Bernard Reedy, who averaged nearly 20 yards per catch and put up nine touchdowns, so stretching the field should be possible. Whether Toledo can find a possession receiver to move the chains on tough third downs remains to be seen. One player they hope helps is converted quarterback Dwight Macon, who has great quickness and has been working with the first team but is untested at the position.
Terrance Owens and Austin Dantin are the quarterbacks for UT, and both figure to see plenty of playing time in 2012 after combining for over 3400 yards and 33 touchdowns last year. Owens brings the stronger arm to the table, but Dantin is the better athlete and allows more creative running plays to be pulled from the up-tempo playbook.
"They both have the ability to open the game up," Campbell said. "They're both athletic, they both have very accurate arms, and they keep a consistency in what we do on offense."
Key departures: RB Adonis Thomas (1071 yd, 6.3 ypc, 12 TD), RB Morgan Williams (671 yd, 5.0 ypc, 11 TD)
Key returnees: RB David Fluellen (493 yd, 5.1 ypc, 4 TD), QB Terrance Owens (209 yd, 5.1 ypc, 1 TD), QB Austin Dantin (183 yd, 3.1 ypc, 2 TD)
As effective as Toledo's passing game was last season, the ground attack was possibly even better. The Rockets rolled up 2654 yards on the ground, third in the MAC and 16th nationally. What set the Rockets' offense apart was their ability to run the ball out of their spread looks, something that many MAC teams struggle with. This second dimension gave defenses fits, and undoubtedly contributed to the gaudy numbers put up by the UT passing game.
Toledo's ability to replicate that success going forward is up for debate, as star running back Adonis Thomas is now looking to crack the Cleveland Browns' roster and second leading rusher Morgan Williams is also out of eligibility. That leaves David Fluellen as the main man, and he was productive (493 yards, 5.1 per carry) when given reps. 232 pound David Pasquale is an intriguing option as a change of pace.
The quarterbacks were also effective running the ball, having combined for 392 yards on 100 attempts in 2011. Toledo runs a fair amount of option plays out of their spread attack, giving defenses just one more look to worry about in their deep playbook.
Toledo's worries in the running game have more to do with the offensive line, which loses three key starters and will have to come together quickly if the Rockets are to repeat their success in any facet of the offense. UT also lacks experience depth up front and will lose over ten pounds of average weight from last season.
Western Michigan didn't do a lot right on defense in their 66-63 loss to Toledo last November, so anyone trying to project how they'd stop the Rockets in this year's key matchup is likely to be at a loss. The personnel losses do give the Broncos some hope when comparing to last year's outcome.
Let's get this out of the way now: Toledo's defense was less than stellar in 2011. Luckily, the offense picked up the slack, but improvement on the defensive side of the ball will be absolutely necessary to repeat or build on their success.
The front seven, though, is fairly well built for success. The defensive line, even though two starters depart, is still pretty deep with relatively experienced players. T.J. Fatinikun racked up 7.5 tackles for loss and three sacks in only six games from his hybrid LB/DE position, and is healthy and ready to go for 2012. Much like Paul Hazel for the Broncos, he figures to be a blitz specialist from the upright position.
Senior Dan Molls returns to lead the linebackers, and although he also missed significant time, he managed an impressive 70 tackles in just seven games. Molls isn't flashy, but he's smart and is a great form tackler at the middle linebacker spot. Robert Bell (78 tackles) may also compete for All-MAC honors.
WMU, despite the loss, did put up 63 points on Toledo in November, so they'll have an idea of how to attack the defense. It won't likely be to run at the front seven. The Broncos ran for only 87 yards in last year's meeting; they may run more often this time around, but it'll be the secondary that they want to attack..
.. because this is a secondary that's expected to really struggle. Toledo ranked 12th in the MAC and 109th in the country, giving up 278 passing yards per game, and that was with a future NFL cornerback on the roster in Desmond Marrow. Marrow is one of three departing seniors in the defensive backfield, although the Rockets do get steady safety Mark Singer (73 tackles, 2 INT in 2010) back after he missed 2011 due to injury.
Sophomore cornerback Jordan Haden is a transfer from Florida and a former four-star recruit, but didn't look the part in the spring as the secondary really struggled against the Rockets' seasoned passing game. Senior Byron Best (18 tackles) provides some experience at corner, as does Kischon Wilcher (28 tackles) at safety, but the group is largely void of playmakers.
Spring results should be taken with a grain of salt, as this team's offense would give anyone fits, but the secondary is not expected to be a strength nonetheless, which is good news for Western Michigan matchup-wise.
"We had some major injuries toward the end of the season last year, and I think building depth through the offseason is something we worked really hard at," Campbell said.
The major concern for Toledo here will be replacing Eric Page, who was not only a great receiver but a special teams star. Page took both a kickoff and a punt all the way back last year, and finished his career with four career kickoff touchdowns. Bernard Reedy will likely handle returns, and brings similar athleticism to the table.
Ryan Casano is gone at placekicker, and replacement Jeremiah Detmer may actually bring more upside to the position. Detmer was 5-for-6 last year as the long-range kicker, including 2-of-2 from 50 or more yards.
The Rockets also return junior punter Vince Penza, who averaged 37.8 yards per kick as the starter last year.
Last year's matchup between these teams was certainly an entertaining barnburner, and while the fireworks seen at the Glass Bowl in November are unlikely to be replicated, there is reason to believe that both teams will score their share of points. WMU will have to find a way to take advantage of a possible weak point on the UT offensive line, but the Rocket passing game should have plenty left in the tank.
By the fifth game of the season, the Western Michigan receiving corps should be well sorted out and running at its peak, so WMU may well take full advantage of a weaker Toledo secondary. With both teams likely taking to the air a lot, another close and relatively high scoring game is likely in order. Western Michigan has to hope that home field advantage is the difference.
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