Toledo, NIU ready for showdown

Toledo has a proud football tradition that had fallen on hard times recently. Enter Tim Beckman.

The second-year coach has energized and revitalized the program, and now the Rockets go into a huge game on national television against Northern Illinois tonight with MAC title hopes on the line. Both teams are 5-0 in the West, and whoever wins controls their destiny for a spot in the conference title game.

Not bad for a team picked to finish fourth in the division this season.

“Toledo’s been recognized as being one of the top programs in the Mid-American conference for so many years, it’s good to be here in November and playing for a game that means something,” Beckman said.

Beckman made it a priority to get to the MAC championship back in January. He handed out bracelets to his players that read “Operation: Ford Field” with the date of the game: 12-3-10. The Rockets went 5-7 in his first year, and lost several starters, but Beckman has the confidence his team could compete.

He got the motivational gimmick from other coaches he has worked under, learning from Urban Meyer, Jim Tressel and Mike Gundy.

“I think you have to talk about these things if you’re ever going to reach these goals,” Beckman said. “Right now it’s getting those kids to believe in one common goal. If it’s wristbands, it’s something the youth of today loves to do.”

The Rockets (6-3) have had to overcome some tough losses this season to Arizona, Boise State and a struggling Wyoming team. But they have won three straight to build momentum and are bowl eligible for the first time since 2005.

The Rockets are 5-0 in the MAC for the first time since 2004, when it ended up winning the conference title. Toledo has 10 MAC titles, and last started the league play 6-0 in 1997.

But now they face a stark reality -- playing without starting quarterback Austin Dantin for the rest of the season.

Dantin injured his shoulder in the last game against Eastern Michigan and is not expected to return this season. Redshirt freshman Terrance Owens stepped in and threw for 234 yards and four touchdowns to help the Rockets win, but Northern Illinois (7-2) is a far better team than Eastern Michigan.

Owens and Dantin had competed for the starting job during the preseason. Dantin won out, but Beckman said Owens never hung his head and has worked hard to improve.

“He continues to get better,” Beckman said. “He struggled a bit during two-a-days, but since then he’s progressed probably faster than most quarterbacks I’ve seen or been around.”

Northern Illinois probably expected to be in this position when the season started. The Huskies were picked to win the division, and have played well with Chandler Harnish and Chad Spann leading the way. They lead the MAC in rushing offense, scoring offense and total offense.

Spann leads the league in rushing and already has 1,000 yards. But the Toledo defense has been opportunistic and is tied for the national lead with 16 interceptions.

Adding more fuel to the fire in this game -- Toledo has won 14 of the past 16 games in the series. Northern Illinois coach Jerry Kill said he has gotten plenty of e-mails in the past week from fans eager to see the Huskies win this one.

“When you’re having a bit more success, people want to see that,” Kill said. “There’s no question with success comes more energy, more interest, more excitement. I don’t know how you can ask for a better setting for college football on Tuesday night.”