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Rockets on track toward their goal

11/09/2016, 12:10am EST
By By BRIAN BUCKEY BLADE SPORTS WRITER

UT needs to end losing streak vs. Northern Illinois

Rockets on track toward their goal

As the calendar turns to November, the University of Toledo football team enters the stretch run of the season right where it needs to be.

With three conference games to play, the Rockets still control their destiny as far as winning the Mid-American Conference West Division and reaching the MAC championship game in Detroit.

But standing in Toledo’s immediate way is a team that has given it all kinds of trouble in the past six years. When the Rockets (7-2, 4-1) face Northern Illinois (3-6, 3-2) today at Guaranteed Rate Field, home of the Chicago White Sox, they will try not to let six consecutive losses in the budding rivalry influence this year’s result.

“It’s obviously not fun losing to anybody,” UT senior offensive lineman Storm Norton said. “They’ve had our number the past few years. We just have to do what we can to go out and execute. We just have to treat it like it’s our next game. It’s just another team that is kind of in our way to achieve our main goal. Overall, the team goal is to win a championship.”

“Last year’s game and the year before that and back to some of those other games, those have absolutely no bearing on this year’s game,” UT coach Jason Candle added.

The Rockets’ most recent loss to Northern Illinois, a 32-27 setback last season at the Glass Bowl, helped to spoil Toledo’s chances of making the MAC championship game. They were forced to watch as the Huskies played in Detroit.

“I feel like in years past, playing this game, Northern has done a great job of creating some turnovers and taking the ball away from us,” Candle said. “And certainly in their last couple of wins, they’ve done a great job of that as well. Not only taking the football away, but also creating points off turnovers. We have to take care of the football and we know Northern plays a physical brand of football. We have to match their physicality, take care of the ball and we have to be great in situational football.”

In years past, the UT-NIU game has decided which team goes to the MAC title game. This year, both teams are looking up in the standings at Western Michigan, which was undefeated entering its game Tuesday night at Kent State.

Northern Illinois struggled at the start of the year, losing all four nonconference games. They have bounced back to go 3-2 in the MAC and are 3-6 overall. Toledo, after a home loss to Ohio two weeks ago, is in second place in the West.

“Whether it’s deciding the MAC West or not, this game has always been a four-quarter football game, minus a few maybe here and there in the past,” NIU coach Rod Carey said. “Certainly since I’ve been here at NIU in 2011, these games have been all the way from a 63-60 game to a 27-24 game, but all of them have been four-quarter games. That’s the mark of two well-coached teams and two real good football programs.”

The fact that this year’s game will be at a baseball field adds a new element to the rivalry. For the players and coaches it will be a nice opportunity, but in the end it is just another conference game that both teams need to win.

“It’s really cool that you have an opportunity to do that,” Candle said. “You’re talking about a venue that hosted a World Series game not too long ago. That’s a really cool deal for your program and for the student-athletes participating in the game for both teams. On the coaching side of it and how you prepare your team, it’s a football game. The field is going to be the same length and the same width and you have to make your preparations to play a game.”

November games often make or break a football team’s season. For Candle and the Rockets, it is no different.

“We’ve kind of faded in years past coming down the stretch in November,” Candle said. “We had a couple tough losses last year at this time. I think at this time of year you really get to find out about your team and really get to find out across the landscape of college football, you kind of see who the people are that can separate themselves and compete and contend for championships and what programs just aren’t there yet. We’re still a work in progress and we’re trying to find out how that story ends for the Toledo Rockets. This is definitely a tough stretch, but we are right where we want to be.”

Contact Brian Buckey at: bbuckey@theblade.com or 419-724-6110.

Toledo vs. Northern Illinois

Site: Guaranteed Rate Field, Chicago

Time: 8 p.m. Eastern

Records: Toledo is 7-2, 4-1 MAC; Northern Illinois is 3-6, 3-2 MAC

TV: ESPN2

Radio: 1370 AM

Series: Toledo leads 29-14

Favorite: Toledo by 7

Notes: Since 2010, Toledo has lost only 11 MAC games (42-11), with six of those coming to Northern Illinois. ... UT quarterback Logan Woodside leads the nation with 34 touchdown passes. ... Woodside’s three TD passes vs. Ohio on Oct. 27 helped him break the UT single-season mark of 29 set by Bruce Gradkowski in 2003 and 2005. ... Senior running back Kareem Hunt gained 136 yards vs. Akron, giving him 4,396 career yards and surpassing Wasean Tait (4,338) for second all-time at UT. ... Senior tight end Michael Roberts recorded his 10th touchdown reception of the season vs. Akron, setting the UT single-season school record for tight ends. ... Toledo is averaging 553.0 yards of total offense and 345.4 passing yards per game, both top marks in the MAC. ... Guaranteed Rate Field will host a college football game for the first time in the 25-year history of the stadium, which is home to the Chicago White Sox. ... NIU improved its record in November games to 23-1 since 2010 with last week’s win is are 15-1 in midweek MAC contests during that time. ... NIU running back Joel Bouagnon scored five rushing TDs last week against Bowling Green, the most by a Huskie since Garrett Wolfe scored five times on the ground against Western Michigan on Nov. 23, 2005.

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UT coach Jason Candle says Northern Illinois has been able to create turnovers and convert those turnovers into points against the Rockets. BLADE/ANDY MORRISON

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