Rockets cautious of Panthers’ speed

Head Coach of the University of Toledo Rockets football team Jason Candle said he hopes to send his seniors off with a win when they face the Florida International University (FIU) Panthers in the Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl today at 12.30 p.m. at the Thomas A. Robinson National Stadium. The game is scheduled to be televised live on ESPN.

“You are always learning about who you are as a coach and about your football team,” said Candle at the game’s official press conference at the stadium yesterday. “I said the other day that great coaches not only have an ability to pay attention and learn from their own mistakes and successes, but they also take the valuable lessons that good players can teach them. I have two great seniors here and a good group of guys who work really hard and to send them out with the right feeling and the feeling they deserve would be ideal. This is the last time they get to wear the midnight blue and gold uniform that I know that has been so special to them, so it would be good to send them off with a win,” added Candle.

This will be Candle’s fourth bowl game in four years. They finished second in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) West Division with a 7-5 win-loss record. Senior linebacker Richard Olekanma reiterated what Candle said about them being able to finish their collegiate careers with a win.

“It would mean everything to get a win. We worked really hard this season and to come to a place like this is incredible, but it will always be better if you win in the end. If you lose, it will leave a sour taste in your mouth. If you win, it will be the best trip of your life,” Olekanma said.

From what he has seen on tape, Candle said the Panthers can run at every position and are very physical on defense.

“I think you are dealing with a team that is built primarily with guys from Florida – South Florida. The stereotype has always been team speed and that is very evident on video tape. They can run at every position. They are a physical group on defense, they tackle with their shoulder pads and they get guys on the ground. On the offensive side we talk about the quarterback’s ability to move the offense and that is something to pay attention to – aided by a good running game. They have players up front and a couple defensive backs who can put their foot on the ground, that can go north or south, and they are a threat on the perimeter with their receivers. It is a complete team,” Candle said.

Olekanma is one of those tasked with stopping the running game and attacking the Panthers’ quarterback. He said they have to overpower the Panthers’ offensive line to have a chance.

“They’re really fast, explosive. We have to do a good job of making them uncomfortable and shutting down the run. If we do that, we’ll have a good chance,” Olekanma said.

On the season, he has 78 tackles, 2.5 sacks and one interception, and also recovered one fumble.

Candle spoke about the experience being in The Bahamas with his team.

“Just to watch our young people have this experience that the bowl game provides is a good feeling. It is really cool – take your team some place where guys otherwise won’t have an opportunity to go see. I think it is a really special thing when you get a chance to do it out of the country. It is fun to watch our guys embrace that and use their platform to give more than they take and to be good model citizens,” said Candle.

The team is ranked 11th in the country in scoring at 41.1 points per game.

Senior wide receiver Cody Thompson, who missed most of last season after he suffered a season-ending leg injury, said it is great to be in The Bahamas in great weather. He said he really enjoyed the food and had conch for the first time and really loved it.

Thompson has 43 catches for 592 yards and 10 touchdowns on the season. He is expected to have a major impact in the game today. He said that the guys are locked in and ready to go, and collectively, they have done a great job of being prepared.

“When we step between those lines for practice or walk throughs, the guys are locked in and flying around making plays. I think that’s the biggest thing – how to transition that to the moment of the game on Friday. We’ve done a great job of handling that and being prepared all week.”

Today’s game will be the fourth time that the two schools compete in football. The Panthers hold a 2-1 series lead. The last match-up saw the Panthers winning 34-32 in the 2010 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Detroit, Michigan.

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Simba French

Simba joined The Nassau Guardian in 2012 as a technical producer for Guardian Radio 96.9 FM. He joined the Editorial Department as a sports reporter in 2018. Simba has covered a wide range of sports stories, including the 2018 CARIFTA in Nassau, Bahamas. Education: College of the Bahamas, BA Media Journalism

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