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Toledo 'O' a concern for Herd

by Rob Peirce

SPORTS WRITER

It might not come with all the fireworks and Heisman hype surrounding Marshall and quarterback Byron Leftwich, but Toledo's offense is more productive and more efficient than the Thundering Herd.

No Heisman candidate leads the Rockets. Instead, it's one-hit wonder Brian Jones, a senior who had to earn his job as Tavares Bolden's replacement.

Toledo coach Tom Amstutz hesitated before naming Jones his regular starter, using two other candidates until Jones won the job against Minnesota, albeit in a losing fashion.

"You have to prove that you're battle-worthy -- that you'll go out and fight for your team when the pressure's actually on," Jones said. "Once I did that, (Amstutz) had a little faith in me. I definitely waited my turn. Last year it was a great experience watching Tavares. It's a lot of hours put in, and it seems to be paying off."

Leftwich has been heralded as the top passer in the country until a bruised shin dropped his average slightly. Where Jones has the edge is in production.

His quarterback rating is No. 2 in the country, 0.9 ahead of Leftwich and 7.9 behind Iowa's Heisman candidate, Brad Banks. He's completed 247 of 346 passes for 2,894 yards and 21 touchdowns. All of these numbers are behind Leftwich despite one more game.

But while Marshall is No. 16 in scoring offense, Toledo is No. 13. The Rockets average almost two points more a game than the Herd and have 10 more touchdowns.

"He's an outstanding playmaker," Marshall coach Bob Pruett said of Jones. "He runs that system perfectly. He's the main reason they've done what they've done. They do an outstanding job on jailbreaks and the screen game."

Jones leans toward the short game, in contrast to Leftwich, who prefers the home run balls. What concerns Herd defensive back Chris Crocker the most is yards after the catch.

"I don't see any threats," Crocker said of Jones. "They don't throw the ball down the field. He throws five-yard routes and little screens which you can't control. It's just like a run. They do a lot with it after they catch it. The receivers make a lot of plays on their own. They're going to have to pass 20 times to get into the end zone."

If that does happen, it likely will be balanced. Four different receivers have more than 300 yards, and eight average more than 11 yards a catch. Carl Ford (64 catches for 900 yards and eight touchdowns), Donta Greene (53-590, 1 TD) and Andrew Clarke (35-392, 7 TD) are the leaders.

The running game is just as balanced. Gone is superstar Chester Taylor, but in his place is a three-man attack. Astin Martin, William Bratton and Trinity Dawson each have at least 110 carries for 595 yards and five touchdowns. Bratton has 639 yards (a 79.9 per-game average) and 10 TDs.

But perhaps most impressive is the offensive line, which is the second-heaviest in the country at 320 pounds per man. Center Chris Tuminello and left tackle Nick Kaczur were named to the All-MAC first team. Right tackle Erik Faasen made the second team.

Marshall defensive coordinator Bill Wilt says more of a concern for the Herd is Toledo's ability, not size.

"Everybody weighs more than we weigh," Wilt said. Marshall's defensive line will give up 65.5 pounds a man against the Rockets. "They have big guys who can run. Anybody who scores that many points -- you're just hoping you can slow them down."

Jones, meanwhile, tries to make sure his protection stays happy.

"I hang out with them as much as possible," he said. "I try to go over and cook them dinner. My life is in their hands."

Sports writer Rob Peirce can be reached at 626-1444 or by e-mail at rpeirce@exponent-telegram.com.