Last season, the MAC West was decided in this game. But in 2017, Western Michigan-Toledo will be a matchup of the reigning conference champions and this year's potential winner.
The Western Michigan Broncos will battle the Toledo Rockets at the Glass Bowl on Friday morning. The game will be Toledo's senior day, and the Rockets will wave farewell to an esteemed senior class that includes quarterback Logan Woodside and running back Terry Swanson.
Here's how the teams look entering Friday's game:
Toledo closing in on the West
It's been a long time since the Toledo Rockets participated in the MAC Championship Game. Toledo last qualified for the event in 2004, where the Rockets downed Miami (OH) by a score of 35-27.
After being heralded as the conference favorites back in August, Jason Candle's program is living up to expectations. If the Rockets can close the season at home over a 6-5 Western Michigan program, they'll have a great shot at winning the MAC, considering Akron (and not Ohio) will be representing the East.
Toledo defeated its arch rival Bowling Green in a 66-37 shootout last week, but Rockets' faithful should still be concerned about the team's result two games ago. In a matchup between the then-top two records in the MAC, Ohio throttled Toledo in Athens by a score of 38-10. The inconsistent Toledo defense could not stop Ohio's running game, and the unit didn't hold firm in the follow-up contest against Bowling Green either.
But Toledo's defense proved it can perform at a high level, as it did in a win against Northern Illinois at home. Combined with a high-octane offense, there is valid reasoning to believe the blue and gold can finally earn its long-awaited MAC championship this year.
Logan Woodside, the conference's best quarterback, has thrown for 3,151 yards in his senior season. He won't replicate his monstrous 2016 outputs but Toledo has elected to keep the ball on the ground more this season. But when Woodside does pass, the veteran's as efficient as anybody in the nation. Number 11 has 22 touchdowns compared to just two interceptions this season. Here's an interesting stat to add: Woodside has thrown a minimum of five touchdowns in each game he's tossed an interception. So, he certainly isn't to blame for Toledo's two losses in 2017.
But there is much, much more to Toledo's offense than its star quarterback. Senior running back Terry Swanson has rushed for career highs in yardage (1,045) and touchdowns (11). More impressively, he's sharing the backfield with Art Thompkins and Shakif Seymour. These two have combined for 188 carries and 13 touchdowns, while Swanson has earned 11 on 189. The offensive line has done a solid job blocking for the backs, and the unit impressed by shutting down NIU's sack-loving defense several weeks ago.
The breakout star of the year for the Rockets is sophomore Diontae Johnson. Johnson is above the 1,000-yard receiving mark and leads the team with 10 touchdowns this season. In the past four outings alone, Johnson has accumulated 555 receiving yards and four touchdowns. His average reception nearly checks in at 20 yards, proving that he's a viable deep threat for Woodside.
From 13-1 to searching for identity
It's been a rough season for Western Michigan. While many MAC teams strive for bowl eligibility and are satisfied with achieving that goal, the Broncos' expectations were shot through the roof last year after a one-loss season and a Cotton Bowl appearance. But after losing several key pieces including head coach P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan is on the verge of a 6-6 finish to the regular season. This season looked very promising for the Broncos, even despite a Week 1 loss to USC.
The Broncos played the Trojans within one possession for about 55 minutes before falling late. Western Michigan recovered from the loss and sat at 4-2 after six games, including a 71-68 seven-overtime victory over Buffalo. But, a 14-13 loss to Akron proved Western Michigan was no longer the king of the conference, and the Broncos have tripped up a couple of times since.
Western Michigan owned a 14-point lead with the ball in Central Michigan's red zone during the battle for the Victory Cannon. But a fumble ruined the contest for the Broncos and the Chippewas' offense caught fire and won the game by a touchdown. And last week, Northern Illinois struggled stopping Jarvion Franklin, but Western Michigan couldn't contain NIU's offense, resulting in another loss.
By competing in all three of these games, Western Michigan has proven it is a decent team, but the Broncos are merely a shell of what they were last season, despite a batch of returning talent from 2016. A road upset victory over Toledo is by no means impossible, and if Tim Lester and the Broncos manage to accomplish this, Western Michigan can finally capture its first signature win during the new coach's tenure.
In order to do so, they'll have to rely on Jarvion Franklin. Since redshirt freshman quarterback Jon Wassink suffered an injury in an overtime victory over Eastern Michigan, true freshman Reece Goddard has assumed the duties of quarterback. But he's been thrown into a tough position and it's up to veterans Chukwuma Okorafor (offensive tackle) and Franklin (running back) to perform to the best of their abilities to take pressure off Goddard.
Okorafor, an Outland Trophy semifinalist, has done an excellent job blocking this season. And as a result, Franklin is posting impressive numbers. The senior halfback has recorded six-straight 100-yard games, earning his third 1,000-yard season of his college career. Franklin's scored 11 times this season and managed to post 115 yards on a stout Northern Illinois run defense in his last go-around.
Keys to the Game
- Sell out on the run, don't get beat by Jarvion Franklin. Franklin nearly took down a 7-4 Central Michigan team by himself with 228 yards and two scores. Given how Toledo's run defense fared in a 38-10 loss to Ohio, the unit must have all 22 eyes on the senior running back, who ranks among the leaders in total career rushing yards for active FBS players.
- Force Goddard into discomfort. The true freshman quarterback is completing passes at a sub-50% rate and with Corey Davis and a talented group of receivers leaving Western Michigan last January, Goddard isn't as armed on offense as former quarterback Zach Terrell was. In limited appearances this season, Goddard has taken 10 sacks and hasn't found his rhythm yet when under pressure. The quarterback should develop this skill at a later date, but it can be tough transitioning to FBS-level football for a true freshman who wasn't expected to start this season.
- Darius Phillips needs to be a major factor. On defense and on special teams, Phillips must perform as Western Michigan's best player. The senior cornerback will play in his final conference game and must strongly impact the game when Western Michigan does not have the ball. He's as electrifying as any return man in the nation (like Dante Pettis) and possesses extraordinary coverage skills too. He returned a pick-six to the end zone two weeks ago versus Kent State and led the entire NCAA in interception return yards in 2016. Once this cornerback gets the ball in his hands, tacklers better be ready to keep up with his speed and acceleration.
- When not giving the ball to Jarvion Franklin, test out Donnie Ernsberger. Western Michigan always seems to perform better when it delivers the ball to the senior tight end. The 6-foot-3 Ernsberger assisted the Broncos in winning overtime games at Buffalo and Eastern Michigan this season. He's not typically a deep threat tight end, so Goddard's throws to Ernsberger should be manageable. After seldom use in 2016, Ernsberger has earned career highs in his final season at Kalamazoo. These numbers should only increase if Western Michigan plans to optimize its offense Friday.
- Date and time: November 24, 11:30 a.m. EST
- Network: ESPNU
- Venue: Glass Bowl — Toledo, OH
- Spread: Toledo (-13)
- ESPN FPI Predictor: Toledo has 73.3% chance to win
- All-time series: Toledo leads 41-30. But Western Michigan won the last two, including a 55-35 win at Waldo Stadium last Black Friday.
After falling short with great teams so many years in a row, Toledo can't possibly fail to make the MAC Championship again. The game against Ohio is beginning to look like a fluke performance offensively. Led by Woodside, Swanson, and Johnson, this offense should be unstoppable to a Western Michigan team that struggled stopping Central Michigan in a monsoon and Northern Illinois. My one concern is how Toledo's run defense handles Jarvion Franklin. With the Broncos facing limited depth at running back and in the absence of Wassink, the offense has been very one-dimensional, so with good coaching, Toledo should have this in the bag. We'll see a 20-point game again, but this time, the result will be flipped.
Prediction: Toledo 40, Western Michigan 20