Northern Illinois traveled to the Glass Bowl in hopes of taking sole possession of the competitive MAC West. The Huskies were shut down by Toledo, a team that played a solid game on both ends to win 27-17 over Rod Carey and the Huskies — participants in six of the last seven MAC Championship Games.
Here are five takeaways from the game:
Toledo surprisingly won the battle in the trenches
Armed with Sutton Smith and Josh Corcoran on the defensive line, Northern Illinois looked like heavy favorites to defeat Toledo's offensive line and pressure Logan Woodside all game long. It didn't happen.
The team that entered the game with a top-20 sack defense just recorded one sack on Thursday night when Corcoran took down Woodside on a Toledo scoring drive. The Rockets shed off the lone sack of the game, scoring two plays later to take their first two possession lead of the game, 24-14.
Woodside had been pressured in several other games this season, including contests against Tulsa and Miami (FL). But Northern Illinois did not bring the heat to the Glass Bowl, and the inability to pressure Woodside just added fuel to the senior quarterback's cannon arm.
Diontae Johnson is becoming a star
Cody Thompson's injury adversely affected the Toledo receiving corps, but Diontae Johnson has taken on the No. 1 wide receiver role in mature fashion. Johnson earned his second-straight 160-yard receiving game, finishing with 166 yards on 10 catches. Although he didn't score three touchdowns like he did against Ball State, he played a crucial role on the offense and was responsible for extending many drives down the field.
Terry Swanson would usually punch it in from the 1-yard line, but Johnson's catches and ability to outrun defenders after receptions were key elements that boosted Toledo's offense past one of the nation's top defensive units. Johnson also nearly had a 99-yard touchdown reception in the first half, turning a bomb down the right sideline into a footrace to the end zone. Unfortunately for Toledo, Johnson was stopped short on the 10-yard line.
There was a point in the game where Johnson made a spectacular tip drill catch — for the second week in a row — but the gain was only three yards. He has the full package: speed, concentration, the hands, and elusiveness.
Northern Illinois underutilized its running backs
Marcus Jones — 14 carries, 80 yards, 5.7 yards per carry
Tre Harbison — 8 carries, 57 yards, 7.1 yards per carry, 1 TD
Northern Illinois has cycled through many running backs this season, including Jordan Huff and Tommy Mister. But on Thursday night, the stage was set for Jones and Harbison, two young running backs already making an impact for the Huskies.
Jones scored the walk-off touchdown against Eastern Michigan and nearly posted a 100-yard performance on the ground. He was very effective when rushing the ball, so it was surprising Northern Illinois didn't utilize him more often during its comeback effort.
Then, there was Tre Harbison. The Virginia transfer entered the game with just nine carries on the season but he earned eight carries, good for 57 yards and his first career touchdown. Harbison was arguably the Huskies' best player on Thursday and the offensive line blocked very well for both of the young backs. But the Huskies, primarily a running team, called 44 plays to go through the air and left the pair of star running backs with just 22 carries.
Woodside didn't throw a TD, but controlled the game
Logan Woodside worked his magic once again. The best quarterback in the conference finished with 361 yards through the air, completing 74.2% of passes. Last week against Ball State, he threw for 267 yards and three touchdowns on just eight completions.
Woodside adapts to the game every single week. He does what he has to do to get Toledo a victory. This game, Woodside's role was completing medium-range passes to push the Rockets down the field. And it worked. Diontae Johnson and tight end Jordan Fisher were Woodside's favorite targets and the senior quarterback led the offense to three long scoring drives of seven plays or more, just one week after scoring instantly on each drive.
Woodside is one of the best quarterbacks the MAC has seen in year, and his stats don't need to be Big 12-esque every game for Toledo to win. He has full faith in Terry Swanson and the rushing attack to help bolster the offense but will throw for 300 yards when needed. But most importantly, he stays mistake free.
Woodside has thrown 19 touchdowns and two interceptions this season and he's been one of the most efficient passers in college football.
Toledo is the clear frontrunner of the MAC
Northern Illinois opened the second half with an 80-yard drive to take a 14-10 lead. But there didn't seem to be much doubt that Toledo was going to win the football game. The Rockets' offense is too powerful and other than a poor showing in a 20-15 win over Eastern Michigan, Toledo has absolutely dominated its MAC competition.
This was as convincing as a 10-point win that the Rockets could deliver. They beat a strong defensive-minded team that was two possessions away (Boston College and San Diego State) from sporting an undefeated record and left no ifs, ands, or buts.
The Rockets must continue their dominance next week in Athens when they take on their in-state rival, the Ohio Bobcats. This is an important game for Jason Candle and Toledo, as the Bobcats handed the Rockets their first conference defeat last season. Ohio's offense is very strong and Toledo's defense must replicate this performance again, but as of now, this Toledo team looks very well-rounded and on pace to finally appear in the MAC Championship Game once again.