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2016 MAC Football Preview: Toledo Rockets vs. Central Michigan Chippewas

Bowl eligibility on the line

NCAA Football: Toledo at Central Michigan Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Three eras divide the rivalry in modern times.

From 1995 to 2004, Toledo claimed 10 consecutive victories over the Chippewas. In the ensuing five seasons, Central Michigan triumphed over the Rockets in each contest. But Toledo rides a six-game winning streak, dating back to 2010, in this series heading into Saturday.

Toledo (5-1) boasts a 5-1 record, but the four FBS teams it has beaten combine for 9-18. Five of those wins belong to the rising Eastern Michigan Eagles, the program Toledo ousted in Ypsilanti in week six.

The most successful offensive performance by the Rockets occurred in a tough 55-53 loss to Brigham Young in Provo. On the road against a quality opponent, Toledo shredded the Cougar defense but lost on a BYU field goal as time expired. Even following the defeat, high expectations continue to surround the program, who rattled off 10 wins a season ago.

But as 31-point favorites against 1-6 Bowling Green last Saturday, Toledo underperformed. The Rockets won 42-35, thanks to a Kareem Hunt rushing touchdown in the game’s final seconds. Defensively, they struggled, allowing 502 yards to a team that lost by 74 points to Memphis. But a win is a win in college football, and the Rockets own a great opportunity to re-establish themselves against Central Michigan (5-2) on Saturday.

Central Michigan recovered from a two-game losing streak with narrow conference wins over Ball State and Northern Illinois. It took the Chippewas three overtimes to defeat the Huskies for a third straight year, but the defense looked solid throughout the contest—a step forward for John Bonamego’s program.

The Chippewa defense forced two turnovers and held the Huskies to under 180 yards both on the ground and through the air. A tenacious defense limited Northern Illinois’ feature running back Joel Bouagnon to 31 yards on 10 carries. This week, the defensive unit will become accustomed to Toledo’s dynamic running back duo of Kareem Hunt and Terry Swanson.

Hunt, the elder, rushed for over 100 yards three times in 2016 and has found the end zone each game against an FBS opponent. His magnificent 2014 placed him into the ranks as a top-10 rusher in the nation with over 1,600 yards, proving the potential he holds as a playmaker. Hunt is teamed up with junior Terry Swanson. Swanson shined against Bowling Green with 112 yards and a touchdown, but has been a constant threat throughout his three years at Toledo. In 2014, he rushed for 97 yards and a score against the Chippewas. In last season’s edition, Hunt rushed for 113 yards and two touchdowns in the victory over Central Michigan.

The defense in maroon and gold has been torched by both running backs in prior matches, so the players should extensively prepare for a heavy dose of both backs in Toledo’s offensive scheme.

Toledo’s offense is nothing to take lightly. The Rockets rank third in the nation, averaging a noteworthy 565 yards per game. Along with that, Toledo is second in the MAC, to only Western Michigan, in scoring output—43 per contest.

Offensively for Central Michigan, junior running back Devon Spalding is in a stage of progression right now. After a slow start to the year, Spalding combines for 281 rushing yards over his last two performances. Senior running back Jahray Hayes also experienced a breakout performance last week, taking repetitions for the injured Jonathan Ward. Hayes rushed for a career-high 105 yards in the triple-overtime thriller, and may see similar production against the Toledo defense in week eight.

The key for the Chippewas to steal a win in Toledo is to run, run, and run the ball. Brigham Young reveled in the ground game against the Rocket defense. Its star halfback, Jamaal Williams, accumulated 286 rushing yards and five touchdowns. The defense scratched heads for 60 minutes without finding a solution for stopping Williams, costing Toledo an undefeated record.

If the run game does not work out for the Chippewas, passing can catch Toledo off-guard as well. Ask Bowling Green’s quarterback James Morgan, who posted 335 yards and five touchdowns on the defense last Saturday.

Central Michigan quarterback Cooper Rush is still in search of performances similar to those at Oklahoma State and versus UNLV. His arm has been stellar, but his protection fails him at times. Central Michigan has allowed the sixth most sacks in the nation, 25, so keeping Rush comfortable in the pocket is significant to ignite the Chippewas’ passing attack against Toledo.

For Toledo, offense wins games. Toledo has not scored under the 30-mark this year. Quarterback Logan Woodside is one of 13 quarterbacks to surpass 2,000 yards passing on the season, accomplishing the feat in six games. The Rockets’ offensive prowess is demonstrated at every level, but they will finally have to create stops on defense to beat a tough MAC opponent in Central Michigan.

It’s a noon kickoff, eastern time, from the Glass Bowl in Ohio. Both programs are headed in the direction of bowl season, but only one has the opportunity to reserve a spot on Saturday.