Hey guys, welcome to the latest edition of WRNL Interrogates. This week, I sat down with Justin Kruse from the SB Nation MAC blog, Hustle Belt, to get his take on the upcoming Toledo-ISU matchup. Nothing like some good MACtion to get you pumped for Saturday!
Let's get started.
WRNL: Toledo just knocked off an ESSS EEEE SEEE team in Arkansas... Was this totally a surprise for the team/fans, or did you know you had it in yourselves from the get-go?
Justin: The narrative from the team will always center around belief in ourselves and in our players, more or less typical coach speak, but I can't believe many fans of the Rockets saw this coming. The opening game against Stony Brook was ruled a no contest due to inclement weather and Toledo looked very sluggish in the first half and led just 16-7 when the game was called. Furthermore, while Matt Campbell has been rather successful at Toledo in just three seasons, the Rockets have not shown well against teams from outside the MAC and performed rather poorly against Power 5 teams as well.
I also feel for the Rocket fans and supporters, it was impossible to ignore the preseason hype that Arkansas was receiving from the national media and perhaps because of that, there was not a ton of buzz locally that this was a game the Rockets could steal. Personally I believe Toledo also benefited when the talk leading up to the game was about Bret Bielema complaining about Ohio State's soft schedule and not the opponent that week. If the head coach is more concerned publically with someone that is not even on their schedule, there has to be a trickle-down effect to the team and I think that showed as well on Saturday.
In the end it was a surprise, but it takes Toledo fans back to past successes and upsets of teams like Penn State, Pittsburgh and Michigan and should serve as a nice boost to attendance and local media coverage.
WRNL: Despite winning, the Toledo defense gave up 412 passing yards to the Razorbacks. What kind of adjustments do you plan on seeing defensive coordinator Jon Heacock implement to counter an ISU offense that is clearly better at passing than running?
Justin: When you look at Toledo Football the last decade and really during the Tim Beckman and Matt Campbell led eras specifically, the Rockets have struggled mightily in big games to stop their opponents. While the box score shows that Brandon Allen threw for 412 yards, it took 53 attempts to get there and that could not have been part of the Razorbacks' game plan. Toledo also led for most of the game and that forced Arkansas to play catchup and abandon the run in the fourth quarter, so while 412 yards is a big number, it does not tell the entire story.
Cyclones quarterback Sam B. Richardson really scorched the Rockets last year in Ames, but by all accounts this is an improved Toledo defense in 2015. In terms of a defensive game plan to stop Richardson, it really comes down to limiting big plays and trying to force Iowa State in longer more prolonged scoring drives. If Toledo can somehow contain Richardson and force the Cyclones to look to the ground, it should bode well for Toledo who brings a very experienced defensive line.
WRNL: Who are the playmakers this year on both sides of the ball for the Rockets?
Justin: On the offensive side of the ball it starts and ends with running back Kareem Hunt who will be making his season debut following a 2 game suspension for violations of team rules. Hunt has amassed almost 2500 yards on the ground in just two seasons at Toledo and was chosen as the top player in the conference by Hustle Belt entering the season. It will be interesting to see how the coaching staff utilizes Hunt early in the game coming off suspension, but his legs will be fresh and he should be eager to contribute and start his 2015 season.
At Quarterback, Alabama transfer Phillip Ely has been effective but the sample size is extremely limited. Ely has made just 4 starts for Toledo and in one game he exited do to a season ending knee injury in 2014 and the opener this year was canceled as mentioned previously. The wide receiving corps is led by the very shifty and quick Corey Jones, who hauled in 8 catches against Arkansas and the physically imposing 6'4'' Alonzo Russell, who has caught at least 50 balls in his first three seasons as a Rocket.
On defense look for defensive tackle Treyvon Hester, a 2014 All Conference 2nd Team performer and defensive end Trent Voss who led the Rockets in tackles for loss in 2014 to provide a strong presence along the line.
Cornerback Cheatham Norrils was just named the MAC West Division Player of the week following eight tackles and a career-high three pass breakups against Arkansas. Norrils missed the entire 2014 season due to a viral infection and will provide much needed experience and skill in the secondary against the Cyclones.
WRNL: Now that you've gotten past what's presumably the hardest game on your schedule this year, has there been any whispering going on behind the scenes of *gasp* running the table?
Justin: There is a sense that if Toledo can get past Iowa State this weekend that 7-0 is realistic when MAC West rival Northern Illinois comes to Toledo on November 3rd for a classic Tuesday night #Maction special. However, Northern has won 5 straight against the Rockets and that will be a hurdle Toledo needs to clear before the fans can truly believe in an undefeated season. Archrival Bowling Green also is lurking as a tough road game in November, so the undefeated talk really is not gathering a lot of momentum right now.
WRNL: What do you gather as the general feeling from the Toledo fan base heading into the game against ISU? Super confident following the big win? Cautiously optimistic? Other?
Justin: I am cautiously optimistic heading into Saturday night, there may be pockets of supporters that feel rather confident following the win at Arkansas, but my expectations are somewhat tempered. Iowa State is by no means an elite Big 12 opponent, but they are a team used to playing in tough environments against teams more talented than Toledo. I also am a big believer that it is tough to get a team of 18-22 year olds emotionally motivated week in and week out. Toledo is coming off a tremendous upset and win for their program, while Iowa State just lost a tough rivalry game at home, who can rebound emotionally could be the key come Saturday.
WRNL: Prediction time... GO!
Justin: I believe the 2015 game will be similar to the 2014 contest in Ames and come down to the 4th quarter. Toledo will have the benefit of getting Kareem Hunt back in the fold and that will be a tremendous boost to the offense. However, the Toledo defense will have to step up and stop Sam B. Richardson, something they were unable to do in 2014. I feel the game starts a little sluggish following the emotion of last week's games for both teams, but spurred on by what should be a solid home crowd Toledo prevails 31-27.
Big thanks to Justin for answering our questions. If you liked his answers or think he's full of it, don't hesitate to follow/@ him on Twitter at @coilswell.