MAC Preview: Toledo relying on “Coach Tuke” to stabilize the defense

#MACtion is synonymous with shootouts in the college football world, and few teams in the country’s wildest conference have lived up to the offensive hype as consistently over the years as the Toledo Rockets.

Stopping opponents, on the other hand, tends to present more of a challenge for the MACsters, Toledo included.

At the end of the 2011 season, newly made 32-year-old head coach Matt Campbell looked within the Rockets’ own conference for a defensive architect who was accustomed to combating all those prolific attacks. The name he came up with was Tom Matukewicz, linebackers coach at Northern Illinois and longtime disciple of former Huskies coach Jerry Kill.

The first season of “Coach Tuke” running Toledo’s defense produced a mixed bag of results. The Rockets gave solid efforts in performances like a 29-23 win over Cincinnati. Then there were those horrendous nights such as the Oct. 13 nailbiter against lowly Eastern Michigan. Toledo won, 52-47, but the D surrendered 624 yards – an average of nearly 9 yards per play – to a team that averaged about 330 yards of total offense per game (105th nationally).

Matukewicz’s tasks for 2013 will include replenishing a defensive line that lost three starters and another three backups from a year ago. Of course, that could turn out to be a blessing in disguise. The Rockets struggled to get into opposing backfields, finishing in the middle of the pack in the MAC in both tackles for loss and sacks.

Getting some more heat on opposing quarterbacks also might help tighten up the pass defense. Toledo gave up nearly 300 yards per game through the air and ranked ninth in the conference in passer rating. As is the case with the DL, Matukewicz faces yet another overhaul job in the secondary. The Rockets get back one starter from last season’s unit, junior cornerback Cheatham Norrils.

For good measure, Toledo is also replacing its entire linebacking corps.

Under normal circumstances, that much attrition on either side of the ball generally translates into a long season. Given the uneven performance of the Rockets’ D in ‘12, however, a new crop of players with a year of experience in Matukewicz’s system could pay dividends for the Rockets. With the number of points that the offense is likely to score, Toledo doesn’t even need to be great defensively. If Tuke can get his guys to play with some consistency and slow down opponents, the Rockets stand to challenge for both the MAC East and conference crown.