Toledo Rockets fans had reason to feel bullish about their squad entering Saturday's matchup against ranked Missouri. After all, Toledo had just opened with an impressive 54-20 victory over New Hampshire the week prior thanks to a strong performance by new starting quarterback Phillip Ely, and the Rockets had kept it close on the road against Missouri last season before hosting the return leg.
That optimism quickly evaporated Saturday at the Glass Bowl, as visiting Mizzou opened on a 35-7 run and seemingly had the contest in hand all afternoon en route to a 49-24 victory. To add injury to insult for the hosts, Ely exited the game with a non-contact knee injury and his status for the season remains in question until further update.
There were some lessons to take from the beatdown, even if the Rockets would rather just forget and move on.
1. The secondary could be a reason for concern, after all.
If there was any part of the season-opening win against New Hampshire that Toledo wouldn't feel good about, it was the Rockets' pass defense. New Hampshire quarterback Sean Goldrich went 27 for 39 with 291 yards, three touchdowns (two passing, one rushing) and no interceptions, seemingly driving at will against Toledo at times. While Goldrich is a better-than-average quarterback on a better-than-average FCS team, his relative success implied the Rockets' secondary might be vulnerable.
Mizzou quarterback Maty Mauk must have gotten the memo, because he put up some big-time numbers to propel his Tigers to the emphatic win.
Mauk completed 21 of his 32 attempts with 325 yards and five touchdowns, adding another score on the ground. The Rockets were able to pick off the sophomore twice, but those served as a footnote in Mauk's otherwise dazzling performance. After Saturday, Toledo has now allowed nine touchdowns against only two turnovers to opposing starting quarterbacks through two weeks.
The good news for the Rockets? Mauk probably represents the best quarterback Toledo will face this year. Cincinnati sophomore quarterback Gunner Kiel has a blue-chip pedigree, but has never thrown a college pass. Northern Illinois uses a three-headed monster at quarterback. Bowling Green's Matt Johnson is excellent, but is out for the season with a hip injury.
Toledo has some problems to fix at the back end, but it shouldn't get worse than Saturday's explosion from a very good quarterback on a very good team.
2. Toledo is still a running team.
When Ely got going against New Hampshire, Toledo fans got excited about a new look to the offense. While coach Matt Campbell's Rockets teams have been run-oriented, Ely looked confident, accurate and capable of carrying the offense himself.
Against Missouri, the knee injury was just the bitter end of an otherwise concerning day for Ely. He completed just 50 percent of his throws and got sacked twice, threw an interception and was shut out of the end zone.
Toledo's offensive attack was far from totally disappointing, however. Sophomore Kareem Hunt collected the seventh 100-yard rushing day of his career with a gaudy 148 yards and three touchdowns on just 15 carries. Hunt was expected to have no problem taking over the starting gig from departed starter David Fluellen, but 281 yards and five touchdowns through two games exceeds even the most optimistic of projections for the Rockets' new bell-cow back.
So while Toledo might not be able to consistently maintain a fierce passing attack, it showed it can at least cling to its strong running game to compete for positioning in the MAC.
3. Matt Campbell's faith in his quarterback depth will be tested.
When Campbell named Phillip Ely his starting quarterback following an open three-man competition, he said he would feel confident starting any one of Ely, Logan Woodside or Michael Julian. Just three weeks into the season, Woodside or Julian may get a chance to justify their coach's confidence.
Matt Campbell said Phillip Ely's condition doesn't look good, but he has no further update.— Nick Piotrowicz (@NickPiotrowicz) September 6, 2014
If Ely misses substantial time, it appears Woodside will get the first chance to replace him as the starter. The sophomore from Kentucky has appeared in five games, mostly in spot duty behind Ely and last year's starter, Terrance Owens, completing 27 of 51 passes with one touchdown and no interceptions. He also started one game for the Rockets last season, presiding over a 33-21 win over Eastern Washington.
Woodside replaced Ely in what was essentially garbage time Saturday, implying he'll get the nod Friday at Cincinnati. If Campbell was serious about his assessment of his backup quarterbacks, Rockets fans might not have to hit the panic button quite yet.
4. The season is far from over, but Toledo has work to do.
The best news for Toledo about Saturday's loss is that Missouri is not a MAC team. It can't feel good to get blown out in front of a near-sellout crowd at home, but losing to the Tigers won't have any bearing on the Rockets' ability to compete for a conference title.
Sure, losing heavily might not be a good omen for a team hoping to beat out the likes of currently undefeated MAC West teams Northern Illinois and Central Michigan for a spot in the MAC Championship, but Toledo's slate is clean in those standings.
Through two games, the Rockets look like a work in progress. In contests against an FCS team and a ranked power conference school, they've shown an explosive rushing attack, flashes of an efficient passing offense, and a defense in need of some improvement. The key is whether or not Toledo will be able to sort out the kinks in time to start the MAC campaign.