UT coach Matt Campbell speaks with the team after the spring game at the Glass Bowl. The Rockets open the 2014 season at home Aug. 30 against New Hampshire. BLADE/JETTA FRASER
The uniforms were familiar, and so was the Glass Bowl setting.
And thank goodness for those two familiar pieces, because there were plenty of unfamiliar elements at the University of Toledo’s spring football game Saturday.
For example, it was the defense that seemed to have the better of play in the contest between a team divided into “blue” and “gold” squads. The Blue managed two touchdown drives and a pair of fourth-quarter field goals to claim a 20-7 decision.
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“I feel our defense is playing better,” linebacker Junior Sylvestre said. “We had a lot of young guys [playing] last year, and now those guys are using their experience to learn and grow.”
The Blue team finished with 243 yards of total offense, with all but 23 of those yards coming in the passing game. The Gold managed just 182 yards, including 123 yards passing, and neither offense averaged five yards per play.
The performance of the defenses, which also forced three turnovers, pleased Rockets coach Matt Campbell.
“While we have nine starters back, we’re really young on that side of the football,” he said. “We have seen them continue to grow and get better.”
It looked as if offense would carry the day early when the Blue scored on its first possession, a 70-yard drive capped by a 34-yard touchdown pass from Phillip Ely to Zach Rogers.
The Gold also started strong on its first possession before a fourth-down fumble ended the drive. And that fourth-down stop seemed to signal that the defenses were taking over.
Neither team scored again in the first half. Jeremiah Detmer missed a field goal — how’s that for unlikely? — when his 29-yard attempt was pushed wide left by a strong wind at the south end zone, and Sam Vucelich saw a 33-yard attempt miss wide right.
Both teams scored on back-to-back drives in the third quarter. The Gold tied the score on a 41-yard TD connected from Logan Woodside to Corey Jones, but the Blue answered with a 29-yard scoring strike by Ely to Michael Roberts.
The only other points allowed by the defense, which saw linebacker Zach Quinn and safety Cameron Madison notch interceptions, were two fourth-quarter field goals of 33 yards by Vucelich.
“Knowing that they are so close to being where we want them to be in our program [is exciting],” Campbell said of the defense. “But it’s still about the details, and about getting better daily.
“I think those kids really bought into that.”
Defensive ends Victor Cave and Ray Bush led the Gold defense with six tackles each, and two of Cave’s tackles were quarterback sacks. Safety Delando Johnson led the Blue with six tackles, including one for loss.
Cornerback Cheatham Norrils liked that there were a number of defenders who played aggressively in the spring game.
“We wanted to make sure everyone knew the Toledo defense is going to be something to worry about,” the St. John’s Jesuit grad said. “We have a new coach staff on defense, and while we haven’t made a lot of changes, we’re going to do things better.”
All of that defensive excellence comes with some caveats. The team’s two top returning running backs, sophomores Kareem Hunt and Damion Jones-Moore, did not play in the contest, and key offensive linemen such as Greg Mancz and Jeff Myers also were among those who did not see action.
That put a spotlight on quarterbacks Ely and Woodside, and Ely had the better day statistically. The junior completed 17-of-30 passes for 220 yards and two touchdowns and was not intercepted while leading the Blue team to a pair of 70-yard touchdown drives as well as two time-consuming drives while leading in the final quarter.
“He has a great understanding of what we want to do offensively,” Campbell said of Ely. “He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes and he is consistent.”
Woodside connected on 15-of-27 passes for 123 yards and a TD but also threw both interceptions.
Campbell said Ely, Woodside and Michael Julian, a freshman who did not play because of a shoulder injury, remain even on the QB depth chart.
“What we would like to do is take that [decision] through the summer and through the early part of fall camp,” Campbell said. “All three guys have had great growth, and have gotten better.”
Alonzo Russell led the Rockets with seven receptions for 74 yards playing for the Blue, while Rogers caught four passes for 59 yards. Jones, Darryl Richards and Zach Yousey each caught four passes for the Gold, with Jones racking up 60 yards.