Dr. Saturday - NCAAF

An absurdly premature assessment of the 2010 Rockets.

Why they might look familiar: Welcome to the former home of such pro luminaries as Bruce Gradkowski and Chester Taylor! No? Then you may recognize a mascot (right) that once consisted of a papier-maché rocket and currently resembles a covert Teletubby assassin? Or perhaps the Peace Pipe rivalry against nearby Bowling Green, established to foster harmony following a student riot in 1935 and culminating with the unsolved theft of the original trophy in 1969? Anybody?

For our money, the most gripping Toledo story remains the elaborate point-shaving scandal uncovered by federal prosecutors in 2007, highlighted by an alleged attempt by Detroit bookies to fix the 2005 GMAC Bowl, one of the most nefarious plots in gambling history. (Also one of the most inept, as the favored Rockets managed to cover the three-point spread by a mile over listless UTEP, 45-13. But still: Hardcore!)

Previously on: The Rockets were reliable winners for more than a decade, winning at least nine games in seven different seasons from 1995-2005, but stumbled to their fourth straight losing record last year at 5-7. Not brutal for a first-year head coach (Tim Beckman, fresh off a stint as defensive coordinator at Oklahoma State), but the occasional victories – highlighted by an early 54-38 upset over Colorado, when it looked like beating Colorado might mean something – were nothing to write home about. The losses were nastier, especially the 31-24 flop at Miami (Ohio) on Halloween, the only win of the RedHawks' entire season; the Rockets' other six defeats all came by at least two touchdowns.

The numbers tell the story: Toledo not only ranked 95th nationally in total defense in '09, but piled on by coming in 111th in turnover margin and dead last in punting thanks to a pair of first-quarter blocks by Bowling Green in the season finale. (Thus making the Rockets yet another fine addition to our pantheon of Teams Who Should Be Way Better At Punting, By Volume). They did rank 13th nationally in total offense with a pair of 1,000-yard receivers, Eric Page and Stephen Williams, who benefitted from the arm of senior quarterback Aaron Opelt, which itself benefitted from an endless barrage of "rocket" puns before being shelved by a rotator cuff injury in the ninth game of the season. 

Encounters in the wild: Here's a wacky opener for a MAC team: A home tilt with Arizona, Friday night in primetime on ESPN2. The Rockets travel to Purdue on Sept. 25, and to Boise State for a likely pounding on Oct. 9. A road date with Northern Illinois in November will get the random Tuesday-night treatment on ESPN2; weeknight games with Bowling Green (Wednesday) and Central Michigan (Friday) to close the season are set for the lucky viewers of ESPNU.

Stock characters: The likely face under center will be Austin Dantin, who passed for just shy of 1,000 yards in relief of Opelt as a true freshman. He'll be bolstered by four returning starters on the offensive line and last year's second-leading rusher, Morgan Williams, but the real star of this show is Page, who led the team in receiving with over 1,100 yards and seven touchdowns. Not to be discounted: The outstandingly-named Adonis Thomas, who slides into the backup running back role behind Williams.

The flip side is slightly more dire: Only three starters are back among an undersized front seven, but team tackle leader Archie Donald should provide some continuity at linebacker. A pair of sophomore corners, Byron Best and Daxton Swanson, almost have to improve last year's 94th-ranked pass defense, if only by the law of averages.

Prognosis: Opelt's departure is a blow to those of us who enjoy pinball points but we still like the Rockets' chances this time around. With a Pac-10 squad out of the gate, followed with four road dates in five weeks – including a Big Ten opponent and a legitimate national contender in Boise State – they can't get too greedy. But within the MAC, a six-win campaign is well within reach.

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Previous Absurdly Premature Assessments (alphabetically by team): Akron ... Arkansas ... Arkansas State ... Army ... Ball State ... Boston College ... Central Michigan ... Clemson ... Colorado State ... Connecticut ... East Carolina ... Florida Atlantic ... Florida State ... Fresno State ... Georgia ... Hawaii ... Houston ... Iowa ... Kansas State ... Kentucky ... Louisiana Tech ... LSU ... Marshall ... MemphisMiddle Tennessee State ... MissouriNevada ... North Texas ... Oregon State ... PittsburghSan Diego State ... Stanford ... Tulane ... UAB ... UCLA ... UTEP.

Holly welcomes your adulation and veiled threats at nastinchka-at-yahoo, etc.

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