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Countdown to Toledo

OTP Countdown200The term “must win” gets thrown around an awful lot in the sporting world, and most times those “must win” moments are being oversold. I struggle to say the Ball State versus Toledo showdown on Saturday is a must win game for the Cards, but I would say it’s awfully important in the grand scheme of this season if the Cards are to have a chance at the MAC Championship. When 2013 opened, I said there were two games that would ultimately define the season and keep the title hopes alive for this season, those being Toledo and Northern Illinois. And lo and behold, Toledo is this weekend, now less than 24 hours away. NIU is what people are talking about and what the experts are pointing to, but Toledo is as important and up first. A win and the NIU game may very well be a de facto MAC West Championship game. A loss and it’s not lights out for the championship hopes, but it’s certainly on life support. Time to count you down to Toledo…

5 Things You Should Know

  • In somewhat surprising news to me, Toledo and the Cardinals are historically neck and neck. The Rockets hold a 19-18-1 record over the Cards but have won three of the last four. The good news is Pete Lembo is .500 against the Rockets, and his win over them in 2012 snapped a three-game series win streak for Toledo. The other bit of good news is that the Rockets trail the series when it is in Muncie, with an 8-11 record.
  • Toledo certainly keeps their QB’s jersey clean. The Rockets are 2nd in the nation in sacks allowed at just two total on the season. And that’s after having opened their season against two SEC schools (Florida & Missouri) on the road. The offensive line for Toledo, coupled with QB Terrance Owens’ escapability and mobility, make the Rockets a difficult challenge for the d-line of the Cardinals.
  • Toledo’s run game should worry you as much as their protection. Rocket running back David Fluellen gained 197 yards and two scores last week against Central Michigan as the Rockets picked up their first MAC win. He’s a shifty back that in some respects reminds me of a poor man’s Quale Lewis. Not quite as contact seeking as Quale, but violent cuts and following his blockers do remind me a bit of Lewis.
  • In a bit of good news in terms of what the BSU offense will be lining up against, the Toledo defense is talented but relatively unproven. There are 13 freshmen or sophomores in the 22-man two-deep roster for Toledo and as they cycle in to the game in spot relief, BSU will need to take advantage of their inexperience. As we’ve seen in games before, Wilie Snead and Jamil Smith create matchup nightmares for untested and unproven secondaries. Let’s hope it continues Saturday.
  • If you’re at all close to Muncie, this is a game you should be moving heaven and earth to get to in person. In the two games at the Scheu, attendance dropped by 8% from the season opener to the second game, and considering the first game was a Thursday that’s surprising. The weather in Muncie this weekend is supposed to be absolutely picture perfect, and a large crowd is needed. For those that want a championship product on the field it’s time to have a championship product in the stands. My hope is we see around 18k. I’m optimistic that happens.

4 Players You Should Know

  • QB Terrance Owens – Though Toledo’s run game causes a bit of worry, their passing attack is their bread and butter and Owens is what makes that possible. He’s third all-time on the Toledo passing touchdown list, and will finish his career in second barring some sort of freak injury.
  • WR Bernard Reedy – This senior is currently fifth in receiving yards in UT history and could feasibly be in second by the time he graduates. He’s also 8th all-time in receptions and is a favorite target of Owens. At 5’9″, he isn’t tremendously taller than the defensive backs he’ll be facing, but his speed and hands make him a dangerous weapon, a la Jamil Smith.
  • RB David Fluellen – We mentioned Fluellen above, thanks largely to his monster game last week against CMU. I think most everyone would agree that even with our defensive struggles early this season, the Cards’ defense is significantly better than the Chips. So while a 200-yard performance may not be the goal, Fluellen will be just enough of a threat to keep the defense on their toes and facing a balanced attack.
  • DT Jayrone Elliott – Anchoring that young and inexperienced defense is this senior defensive tackle who has made life challenging for opposing offenses in this young season. Through only four games, Elliott already has five tackles for loss and three sacks and has surpassed his season total for tackles from last year. If there was a Toledo defensive player capable of making the day go poorly for Keith Wenning and the offense, Elliott is the guy.

3 Ways We Win

  • Force Toledo to pick either run or pass, not both – The defense for the Cards is serviceable when it can force an opponent to pick their poison. The teams that are balanced and methodical are the ones that have given BSU fits over the years. Throw in the big play capability of Owens and his receivers and that’s an issue.
  • The offense has a few long and sustained drives – The quick scores are great and they are great fun, but they don’t allow the defense much time to catch their breath and may very well be the lion’s share of the reason why the defense drops off a bit in the second half. The one thing missing from the BSU battle plan so far this season has been an ability to just march it down the field a little at time and punch it in. Those kinds of drives grind a defense down, and to do it against Toledo is big.
  • Capitalize on scoring opportunities when they present themselves – First and foremost, the special teams need to be special. No missed extra points, no missed field goals. Speaking of field goals, when BSU hits the red zone it needs to be for 6, not 3. This game doesn’t seem like one that will come down to whoever scores 50 first or whoever has the ball last, but if it does, those points matter. Make ’em count.

2 Cardinal Questions

  • Which BSU defense is going to show up? Is it the defense we saw against Army or the defense we saw against North Texas? I’d even settle for something in the middle a la Illinois State.
  • Who turns the ball over? As turnovers go, so will go this game. Both teams are capable of creating turnovers, so whoever does it more and capitalizes most will be in the driver’s seat.

1 Bold Prediction

I would be lying if I said this game didn’t at least make me a little nervous. Part of that is because of what it could mean for this program and its future. A victory means the Cards are one step closer to the MAC West title and the opportunity to play for the MAC Championship in December and that is an exciting and scary thought all at the same time. Could it be that in just year three under the leadership of Pete Lembo the Cardinals are title contenders? Yes, they are. The first step of that contending comes Saturday, where I think the Cards use a raucous crowd to drive them onward to victory. Another 300 yards for Keith, another 100 for Quake, another W for BSU. 31-21 good guys.

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