Published November 20, 2014
It's been more than a decade since the Toledo Rockets have been in the Associated Press Top 25.
They'd like to stay a while.
But less than 60 hours after climbing to No. 23, the Rockets will be tested on Tuesday night when they host Ball State in a game full of risk and reward for both teams.
"For us and our staff and our kids, the thing that has gotten us to this point is our ability to focus on getting better each day," first-year Rockets coach Matt Campbell said. "That's the thing that makes November really special. We know how important that is. It's a great honor (to be ranked) but it's something you'd like to end the season with."
By almost any measure, the Rockets and Cardinals have a lot in common — particularly in terms of being well stocked with dangerous offensive players and leaky defenses.
The Rockets (8-1, 5-0 Mid-American Conference) are out to extend an eight-game winning streak and put themselves in position to play in the MAC title game. The Cardinals (6-3, 3-2) can enhance their bowl prospects by pulling off the upset.
Rest assured Ball State's players are well aware that the Rockets have moved into the rankings. And that they may not be alone for long. The MAC has four teams in the top 32 — matching the number of representatives from the mighty Big Ten. (Northern Illinois is 26th in the media balloting, Kent State is 27th and Ohio, yet a fourth one-loss team from the MAC, is also getting points at No. 32.)
"I did share with our team yesterday after practice about Toledo moving into the Top 25," Ball State coach Pete Lembo said on Monday. "That's a great thing for the MAC. We've got some terrific teams in the league this year. We're just excited to be in a position where this game has a lot of meaning to it at this point."
Both teams are built around offenses that can score early, often and quickly.
They combine to average 68 points and 919 yards a game. Meanwhile their defenses are surrendering 60 points and 931 yards per contest.
Toledo can rely on steady multipurpose back David Fluellen, third in the nation with both 1,181 rushing yards and 131.2 yards per game. He's able to grind out tough yards between the tackles but also has the breakaway speed to outrun defenders. The junior, who has topped 100 yards in each of his last five games, has gains of 53, 53, 49 and 44 yards this season.
It's fitting that a team called the Rockets would have a solid air attack as well. Quarterback Terrance Owens, who didn't win the starting job until earlier this season, is both accurate and athletic. He ranks fourth in MAC history in career completion percentage (.654), a year after setting conference and school marks by hitting on 72.2 percent of his attempts.
Owens' favorite target is Bernard Reedy, who has 61 catches for 803 yards and five touchdowns, plus is one of the most dangerous return men in FBS. He's brought back one punt and two kickoffs for scores, including a 91-yard kickoff return that was the difference in a 29-23 upset of No. 18 Cincinnati on Oct. 20.
The Cardinals can also fill up a stat page.
It starts with Keith Wenning, who throws for 269 yards a game. He's passed for more than 6,000 yards in less than three seasons.
Wenning needs to throw just 77 more passes to set a Ball State career record — and it's not out of the realm of possibility he might do that very, very soon. After all, he tossed 71 passes (completing 42 for 434 yards) in a 35-23 home loss to Northern Illinois on Oct. 6.
Wenning's got plenty of help, too. Wide receiver Willie Snead leads the nation with 46 plays from scrimmage that have gained at least 10 yards. He leads the MAC in catches (68) and receiving yards (901).
As if that wasn't enough, Jahwan Edwards is averaging 105 yards rushing a game and Steven Schott leads the nation in field goals per game with 2.22. He's also 15th in the country in scoring at more than 10 points a game.
Defense is the big concern for both teams, trying to put a governor on all those points and yards that the other side is capable of producing. Ball State has allowed more than 30 points in five games, while holding opponents under that figure in just four. Still, the Cardinals have won three in a row while playing their best defense of the year.
"There certainly are some outstanding players on their offense," Lembo said. "And our offense is led by a pretty good offensive line and some underclassmen skill players who are coming along nicely. It'll be interesting."
The Rockets' only loss came in overtime, 24-17 at Arizona in the opener. Since that close loss, they've won four games by six or fewer points, including three times on the road. After giving up 35 and 47 points in back-to-back wins, they've given up 23 and 20 points in their last two victories.
Now they're getting some national attention. But can they hang on to make this more than a once-per-decade thing?
"We've worked really hard the last nine months to develop that workmanlike approach to everything we do," said Campbell, a former player and coach at perennial Division III powerhouse Mount Union. "We try to worry about what we can control."
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