On Wednesday night, Toledo and Ohio will match up with each other in a contest between the MAC East frontrunner and the MAC West frontrunner. No matter the result of the game in Athens, the two still control their own destiny to Detroit for the conference championship on December 2.
Toledo keeps on rolling
The Toledo Rockets won their fifth-straight contest last Thursday, surmounting the Northern Illinois Huskies to receive full ownership of the MAC West. Toledo now possesses the MAC's best overall record at 8-1, and AP voters have taken notice — Toledo's 31 votes received in the Week 11 AP Poll are the most for any MAC team this season.
Ever since falling to undefeated Miami (FL) (currently ranked No. 6) by a score of 52-30, the resurgent Rockets have thwarted most of their competition. Following a 5-point victory over Eastern Michigan, Toledo has won each of its last four games by double-digits. The Rockets hold a +24.5 point differential per game in these four victories.
Toledo's recent dominance can be attributed to the success of the Logan Woodside-Diontae Johnson combination. In their last two games, Woodside and Johnson have connected 14 times for 336 yards and two touchdowns. The sophomore receiver has been the breakout player on Jason Candle's offense in recent weeks, and he has established himself as one of the best deep threats in the MAC. Johnson doesn't just have the speed; his hands are incredible too. He's made several SportsCenter Top 10-like highlight catches in recent games and his emergence has done wonders for Toledo's passing game.
Another breakout star on the Rockets' offense is tight end Jordan Fisher. Fisher is filling the void left by Michael Roberts' departure, as the sophomore Rockets tight end experienced a career day at the Glass Bowl in the victory over NIU. Fisher caught a personal-best six catches for 102 yards in the 27-17 win and has added versatility to Toledo's passing game.
Woodside is now equipped with an emerging star in Diontae Johnson and a formidable tight end. Wide receivers Danzel McKinley-Lewis, Jon'Vea Johnson, and Desmond Phillips add to Toledo's vast array of targets. This group allows the Rockets to field the 18th best passing offense in the FBS in yards per game.
The running game has also been a bright spot in this all-around dominant offense. Terry Swanson is enjoying a nice senior year, earning four consecutive 100-yard games during Toledo's recent stretch of dominance. Swanson is 29th in the country with 844 yards on the ground, and his 11 rushing touchdowns rank 18th nationally.
Art Thompkins, Shakif Seymour, and Nevone McCrimmon have all had their share of breakout games at the running back position too. Toledo's offensive line has done an incredible job blocking for the run as of late, and the line also allowed just one sack to Northern Illinois and its sack-happy defense.
Defensively, Toledo has been stellar in October and November. The Rockets' 11-man unit struggled in games against Tulsa and Miami (FL) this season, but the defense has been consistent in stopping opponents on third downs and halting the run over the past few contests. Trevon Mathis particularly lifted the Rockets' defense last week, halting Northern Illinois drives with two separate interceptions on the Toledo 33-yard line.
It's also worth noting how great the Toledo special teams have been this season. Diontae Johnson and Danzel McKinley-Lewis have found great success returning punts, but the kicking game is reminiscent of the days of Jeremiah Detmer. Junior kicker Jameson Vest, who connected on a game-winning field goal during the last play against Tulsa, has drilled 19-of-22 attempts this season and has solidified himself as one of the FBS's best kickers after a rocky start to his collegiate career. Vest is perfect between 40-49 yards this season, an area of the field most young kickers struggle to find consistency in.
MAC-to-MAC East titles for Ohio?
Last season, led by Tarell Basham and Blair Brown, Ohio's defense was regarded as one of the better units in the country. But the offense was the struggle for Frank Solich's team.
In 2017, the Bobcats have certainly found their offense, led by sophomore quarterback prodigy Nathan Rourke. Rourke is the best rushing quarterback in the MAC and his arm has shown flashes of great potential as well. He is an absolute scoring machine, producing 13 passing touchdowns and 16 rushing touchdowns (second in FBS, first among quarterbacks) this season.
Last week in a 45-28 win over Miami (OH), Rourke produced all six touchdowns for Ohio. He performed several textbook read and speed options by the goal line and threw a beautiful deep ball all night, captaining the offensive clinic put on by the Bobcats. Rourke has now thrown multiple touchdown passes in five games and rushed for three touchdowns in four games this season. Toledo's defense has been rock-solid lately, but Rourke will introduce the Rockets to the second-strongest defense in the MAC on Wednesday.
Ohio's defense, led by inside linebacker Quentin Poling, hasn't been as good as last year's unit, but it gets the job done. The Bobcats' strength on defense is their ability to stop the run, and they stop the run at the 21st best rate in the nation. But the pass defense struggled against Miami (OH), allowing three touchdowns and 350 yards to Billy Bahl. However, the Bobcats secured two key interceptions in the victory and now ride a seven-game interception streak dating back to the Week 3 victory over Kansas.
Offensively, running back A.J. Ouellette has been reliable, even if he isn't finding the end zone at the ridiculous rate Nathan Rourke has. Ouellette, who was limited to three carries a year ago due to a season-ending injury, now has attained a career-high 827 yards on the ground. But his 140 carries this season are actually the third-highest mark of his long college career, so he's averaging a productive 5.9 yards per carry.
Keys to the Game
Bradd Ellis and Jalen Fox must play the best game of their season. Playing cornerback against Logan Woodside is no easy task, as Woodside has incredible vision and is always bound to find an open receiver. Ellis and Fox cannot allow Diontae Johnson and friends beat them on the deep ball. Ball State's cornerbacks particularly struggled with this against Woodside, and after allowing 350 passing yards last week, Ellis and Fox must play like shutdown corners to prevent Toledo's offense from doing the same to Ohio's secondary. Ellis and Fox both have earned two interceptions apiece this season and forcing turnovers against the generally-mistake-free Logan Woodside (19 touchdowns, 2 interceptions) will be a huge bonus.
Toledo needs to establish rhythm early and score immediately. The Rockets faced a 28-7 deficit versus Tulsa early in the season, trailed Ball State 7-3 after a quarter several weeks ago, and then could not get the offense at full power in the early moments of the Northern Illinois game. Neither the Cardinals or Huskies possess an offense with as much firepower as Ohio's, so Toledo must light up the scoreboard as early as possible to gain momentum on the road. The Rockets' failure to score a touchdown in the first half of this game last season led to a 31-26 upset by the Bobcats and Jason Candle cannot let that happen again. Swanson and Woodside need to make key, long-yardage plays in the first quarter to escape Athens with enough points and a second-consecutive statement victory in the MAC.
Time and Date: Wednesday, November 8 — 7 p.m. EST
Venue: Peden Stadium — Athens, OH
Spread: Toledo (-4)
ESPN FPI: Toledo has 55% to win
Series: Toledo leads 31-20-1. But the Rockets lost to the Bobcats 31-26 last season. It was Toledo's first of two conference losses. The win helped propel Ohio into a MAC East title, and the Bobcats would narrowly lose the conference title game to Western Michigan.
As midweek #MACtion enthusiasts, this is the type of game we live for. Nationally televised and on Wednesday night, two of the best offenses in the MAC will go head-to-head. It would be cool to have one of those 2011 #MACtion showdowns, like Toledo beating Western Michigan 66-63 or Northern Illinois beating Toledo 63-60, as a 100+ point game is not uncharted territory when these two offenses collide. But Toledo's defense has performed stronger than Ohio's defense lately, which would favor Logan Woodside and his powerful arm over Nathan Rourke and his quick feet. All signs points to a rematch between these in-state adversaries in early December, but for now, Toledo should improve to 9-1 and receive a lot more votes in the AP Poll after beating a quality opponent.
Prediction: Toledo 48, Ohio 42