Daily Chronicle reporter Jeremy Werner caught up with Toledo beat writer Zach Silka of the Toledo Blade to talk about the Rockets' showdown with Northern Illinois on Tuesday at Huskie Stadium.
The Huskies (7-2, 5-0 Mid-American Conference) and the Rockets (6-3, 5-0 MAC) currently share first place in the MAC West. The winner of Tuesday's 6 p.m. kickoff will take a one-game lead and hold the tiebreaker with two games remaining.
So, Toledo has a new quarterback. There's been rumblings that redshirt freshman Terrance Owens might be better than sophomore Austin Dantin, who may be out for the season with a shoulder injury. Give me your take on Owens and how he impacts Toledo's chances in the MAC the rest of the way. The first difference between Owens and Dantin is Owens is a lefty and Dantin is a righty. The UT players like to say that's the only difference between the two, but there are others. Owens has a much better arm and gives the Rockets' passing game a deep-threat element to it. Last week in the first extensive action of his career, Owens had TD passes of 74, 68, and 53 yards at Eastern Michigan. Owens is also more of a pocket passer, while Dantin isn't afraid to tuck it and run (a big reason why he's sidelined right now with a shoulder injury). At the end of the day, though, Owens gives UT just about as good of a chance to go far in the MAC as Dantin does. If you would asked me that question earlier in the season, I would have said the Rockets would struggle with Owens behind center, because he's only a redshirt freshman and was still very raw. But now that he's gotten some much-needed experience, I think he's ready to perform. Now, granted, EMU and NIU are light-years apart, so we'll have to see how Owens performs on a much larger stage.
Rockets wide receiver Eric Page (66 catches for 776 yards) may be the most explosive player in the Mid-American Conference and likely will receive a lot of attention for the Huskies. But besides Page and Owens, who can be the X-factor on offense for the Rockets on Tuesday? Tight end Danny Noble and Owens are good friends, and their off-the-field friendship has translated into some solid on-field chemistry in the passing game. Owens' first pass after relieving Dantin last week was a 74-yard TD pass to Noble, and they later hooked up again for a 6-yard TD pass. Owens often looks to Noble in crucial situations, and I'd expect that to continue Tuesday.
Besides losses to 7-1 Arizona and 7-0 Boise State, Toledo's defense has held its opponents to 24 points or less and is tied for second in the nation with 26 turnovers gained. Last year, Toledo was 12th in the MAC in scoring defense by allowing 37.7 points per game. What are the reasons for the quick turnaround? The UT players and coaches have been asked that question several times this season, and their answer is always the same. Last year, with new coaches and new schemes, the players weren't always trusting of their coaches and the play-calling. This year, everybody seems to have bought in. The players are also much more dedicated this season, especially in their off-field work like film study and strength training. Plus, two full recruiting classes from the new coaching staff have yielded a boatload of fresh, young talent. Defensive standouts like LB Danny Molls, DE T.J. Fatinikun, and CB Taikwon Paige were recruited by coach Tim Beckman.
Tim Beckman has quickly turned around the Toledo program since taking over a team that finished 3-9 in 2008. What's his secret? Beckman was a long-time defensive assistant at places like Oklahoma State and Ohio State before coming to Toledo, so the Rockets' defensive struggles last season really killed him. So starting in spring workouts, Beckman took a more active role in the defensive coaching and gameplanning. He preaches a defensive philosophy of attacking and swarming to the football and forcing opposing offense's into making mistakes. And now, the work has paid off because the Rockets are tied for first nationally with 16 interceptions and are second in the country with 26 takeaways.
Even in recent years when the Rockets have struggled, they've been a thorn in Northern Illinois' side. What will the Rockets need to do to win their sixth game in their last seven trips to Huskie Stadium?
The Rockets have talked extensively about trying to stop NIU's run game, and they'll definitely have to find a way to slow down Chad Spann – which is no simple task. Also defensively, UT has thrived off winning the turnover battle all season, and the Rockets will need to do that again if they want to be successful at NIU. Offensively, that means limiting turnovers and sustaining long drives – something that could be tough for a redshirt freshman QB to manage.
What's your prediction for Tuesday and why? I've said for several weeks now that I just don't see UT winning this game. NIU will be the Rockets' biggest MAC test by far this season. Defensively, I think they have enough to at least slow down the Huskies and keep themselves in the game, but I worry about UT's offense, which has been inconsistent at best this season. Owens did a great job last week against Eastern, but I wonder how well he'll perform in his first career start, especially in such a big-time environment. Either way, I think it should be a great game and I'm definitely looking forward to seeing Huskie Stadium for the first time.