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Toledo Rockets Season in Review

After years of falling just short, Rockets win the West

Toledo v Ball State Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The year is 2010. After a 5-7 season, Toledo head coach Tim Beckman improves the Rockets to an 8-5 record, finishing 7-1 in MAC play. But a 65-30 loss to Northern Illinois (8-0 in MAC play) prevented Toledo from reaching Detroit for the conference championship, a game Toledo last received an invite to in 2004.

2011 rolls around, and Beckman leads the Rockets to an improved 9-4 record, finishing 7-1 in conference once again. But the NIU Huskies earned the tiebreaker in dramatic 63-60 fashion — one of the most iconic games in midweek MACtion history. Toledo is once again watching the conference champion get crowned from home on the first weekend of December.

Beckman leaves for Illinois, and Matt Campbell arrives. Toledo finishes the 2012 campaign 9-4, 6-2 in conference. The Rockets once again fall to their nemesis NIU, and the Huskies participate in the MAC Championship Game, and eventually the Orange Bowl.

The 2013 team takes a step back by finishing 5-3 in conference play, 7-5 overall. However, Campbell rebounds with a 9-4 finish to 2014 with a 7-1 conference record. The one loss? Northern Illinois, of course! Toledo beats Arkansas State 63-44 in its bowl game but would not hang a MAC championship banner at the Glass Bowl.

In 2015, Toledo reaches the national spotlight after upsetting Arkansas and Iowa State in back-to-back weeks. The Rockets reach as high as #19 in the AP Poll and check in at #24 in the CFP rankings for a week. Despite the lone MAC team to enter both polls and a 10-2 finish, Toledo loses a three-way tiebreaker to Northern Illinois and Western Michigan — the Rockets' only two defeats in the season. No MAC Championship.

Prior to 2016, Campbell left for Iowa State and Jason Candle, the former offensive coordinator, assumed head coaching duties. Candle continued the success with another 9-4 season (6-2 in MAC). He had a chance to earn a bid to Detroit in the last contest of the regular season, but his Rockets fell to the undefeated Western Michigan Broncos in a 55-35 shootout.

Toledo finally breaks through

Before we can appreciate what Toledo did in 2017, it's important to reflect on the long process, the several coaching changes, and the years of falling just short of the MAC Championship Game. Even though Toledo was selected as the heavy conference favorite entering 2017, the Rockets were on a mission to prove they would finally capitalize and earn the coveted MAC West crown.

Standing at 10-2, 7-1 in conference, and sporting an unblemished record against its MAC West brethren, Toledo has finally risen to the top and will pit its talent against an Akron Zips squad that seems to improve by the week.

Game-by-game reflection

Toledo kicked off its 2017 season at the Glass Bowl against Elon of the FCS. The 47-13 shellacking was hardly a surprise given the Rockets' slew of returning offensive talent. Logan Woodside tossed the pigskin for 314 yards and we were introduced to Toledo's running back depth. The senior Terry Swanson actually took a backseat to the duo of Shakif Seymour and Art Thompkins in the victory (201 combined yards), and the two would prove to be integral parts of the Toledo offense later in the season.

Toledo's next two games were wins by definition, but the games were closer than the 10-2 Rockets would have preferred. Candle's team opened its FBS slate against Nevada and Tulsa, Group of Five programs with a combined 5-19 record in 2017. The defense looked shaky at times in both games, allowing 386 yards of offense to Nevada in a 37-24 win and 548 yards to Tulsa in a 54-51 thriller.

There were plenty of flaws exposed in the Tulsa game. For one, the rushing defense could not contain Tulsa's running backs D'Angelo Brewer and Shamari Brooks or quarterback Chad President, who combined for 423 rushing yards and six touchdowns on the evening. It was a rare game where Woodside threw an interception, and Tulsa capitalized on the turnover and led 28-7 at one point. But Toledo roared back and clinched the home victory with a game-winning kick by Jameson Vest — who would prove to be the conference's best kicker on the season.

A win is a win, and Toledo rode the momentum to a 3-0 record, and more importantly, a 16-10 halftime lead at Miami (FL). The Woodside-to-Cody Thompson connection looked unstoppable against the Hurricanes in the first half, and "The U" trailed by nearly a touchdown at the game's midway point thanks to Vest's leg and Toledo's defense holding its ground.

But fumbles and the inability to stop the run made the game lopsided in the second half. Miami's offense exploded to score four straight touchdowns, Toledo briefly recovered to cut it to 38-30, but the Hurricanes had the final blow and pulled away with a 52-30 victory. This non-conference loss, in which the Rockets looked like the better team for a half, could be chalked up as a moral victory — one that looks more respectable as the Hurricanes remain in CFP contention entering conference championship weekend.

Toledo had difficulty in its ensuing contest back in the Glass Bowl, beating a battle-tested Eastern Michigan program by a score of 20-15, thanks to a Brogan Roback interception on the final drive. Roback nearly led an impressive road comeback over the Rockets, but Toledo's defense showed massive adjustments in this victory after yielding 51 and 52 in consecutive outings. But the Rockets would lose a key piece in this game, as the team's leading wide receiver at the point would suffer a broken leg and miss the rest of the season. Cody Thompson, the senior, played his final game in 2017, finishing with totals of 28 receptions, 537 yards, and 4 touchdowns in less than 4.5 games.

At 4-1, Toledo traveled to Mount Pleasant for a clash with the Central Michigan Chippewas, who currently hold the second best record in the MAC when factoring tiebreakers. But Central Michigan looked more than just one step behind Toledo when the two teams competed in mid-October. Toledo's defense went 58 minutes and 54 seconds without allowing a Chippewa in the end zone, and Swanson and Seymour led the charge for a run-centric offense in a quick 30-10 victory.

To achieve bowl eligibility, Toledo would have to defeat Akron back at home. At the time, the Rockets had no reason to believe it would run into this team in December, dispatching the Zips in a one-sided 48-21 decision. Woodside threw for five touchdowns against a porous Zips' passing defense and Swanson won the battle against the Akron front-seven. As a result, Toledo finished with 622 yards in the convincing victory and would attain bowl eligibility for the eighth-straight season (the 7-5 Toledo team in 2013 would not be selected to a bowl, however).

The next game would prove to be an absolute breeze for the Rockets. Against a Ball State team that didn't score a touchdown for three weeks and allowed 56 points in four-straight MAC games, Toledo fulfilled its expectations for the night... Well, at least for three quarters. In the upset of the year, Ball State led 7-3 after one quarter, but Toledo's offense arrived on the scene and never departed. Particularly, it was the breakout game of Diontae Johnson. Johnson seamlessly filled Thompson's shoes and took over as the team's number one receiver. He finished the night with 170 receiving yards and three touchdowns, one of them occurring on an 87-yard punt return. Toledo improved to 7-1 after achieving 602 yards of offense against an outmatched Cardinals team.

But after winning four MAC games to begin the year, Toledo wasn't in sole control of the West division. It would have to face its old rival, Northern Illinois. But this time, the Huskies didn't spoil the Rockets' MAC Championship hopes. Toledo's offensive line neutralized Northern Illinois' talented front seven — a unit that leads the nation in tackles for loss. Toledo allowed just one sack on the night and trailed for less than five minutes, propelling itself to a statement 27-17 victory to gain sturdy control of the division. Woodside threw for 361 and Swanson rushed for three touchdowns and 116 yards to spark the offense at the Glass Bowl in a pivotal matchup.

Since Northern Illinois couldn't compete with Toledo, the following matchup of Ohio-Toledo looked to be the most compelling mid-week MACtion game of the season. But once again, the result proved much more separation than expected. Frank Solich's Bobcats throttled the Rockets in a shocker in Athens, Ohio to set both teams' records to 8-2. The run defense reverted to its struggles against Tulsa and Miami, allowing Nathan Rourke and the Bobcats to achieve 393 on the ground. Conversely, Toledo's running back talent was stalled by the Bobcats' defense and was limited to 53 yards.

Toledo could not convert on third down and turned the ball over in Ohio territory twice in the first half, forcing the Rockets to enter the locker room with just seven points on the board. And second half momentum was never achieved, as Ohio scored touchdowns on all four of its second half possessions (besides victory formation).

But the loss would be quickly stowed away as Toledo would travel 25 miles to Bowling Green for a heated rivalry game. The Rockets won the Battle of I-75 for the eighth-straight season, outscoring the Falcons 66-37. Swanson earned a season-high 192 rushing yards and Woodside accurately tore apart Bowling Green's secondary to produce the team's highest scoring total of 2017. Toledo led just 24-21 at halftime but a highly productive third quarter separated the two Ohio schools, and the 10-2 program's offense bested the 2-10 team's by 29 points.

To close the regular season, Toledo would face the team that prevented it from winning the conference in 2016: Western Michigan. But without P.J. Fleck on the sidelines or Zach Terrell and Corey Davis on the field, Toledo would blow by a much different Broncos team. The Rockets dominated from the start and led 24-3 before allowing the Broncos in the end zone. On senior day, it was fitting to see excellent performances from Woodside, Swanson, and outside linebacker Ja'Wuan Woodley.

Toledo finished with 10 regular season wins for the first time since 2000, and the Rockets will rematch the 7-5 Akron Zips to earn conference bragging rights in Detroit. Potentially, Toledo can earn 12 wins, its first conference title since 2004, and send the talented senior class out with a phenomenal season.

Key Players

Logan Woodside, QB, 11: Woodside is the most talented quarterback in the conference and one of the best in the country. He led the FBS in passing touchdowns in 2016 and threw 24 touchdowns and just three interceptions this season, on fewer attempts. He achieved a career-high 10 wins and stayed healthy the entire season. His 3,451 passing yards vaulted him above Bruce Gradkowski for the Rockets' all-time leading passer. And he's not done yet.

Terry Swanson, RB, 2: Swanson played second fiddle to Kareem Hunt for years, but the senior finally earned his chance to succeed as the team's feature back. He's rushed for career highs in yards (1,139) and touchdowns (12) and he's caught 16 passes for 162 yards. Swanson achieved seven games above the century mark in 2017, and he's been splitting carries with several younger tailbacks.

Shakif Seymour, RB, 21: Seymour tied Swanson for the clubhouse leader with 12 rushing touchdowns. The freshman from Cleveland was a consistent threat behind Swanson the entire season, achieving 665 yards on exactly half of the carries. The running back position looks to be a "next man up" scenario at Toledo, and once Swanson leaves, the future looks bright under Seymour — just like the current situation continued to thrive after Hunt's graduation.

Diontae Johnson, WR, 3: When Cody Thompson suffered the leg injury versus Eastern Michigan, the wide receiver position was no certainty for the Rockets. But Johnson not only proved he could be the best receiver on the team, he proved he could become one of the top wideouts in the country. Thanks to a three-game stretch with 480 receiving yards, the deep threat submitted his name into the list of leaderboards in the FBS. His 1,139 receiving yards check in at 10th and he's tied for seventh in touchdowns receptions with 11 on the season. Johnson, only a sophomore, averaged over 18 yards per catch and became an easy target for Woodside, as he burned cornerbacks down the field on a weekly basis.

Jon'Vea Johnson, WR, 7: Jon'Vea Johnson worked as a solid secondary target in Toledo's talented receiving corps. The junior only surpassed the century mark once but he caught multiple passes in 10 of 12 games. Johnson's 2016 was much more productive but he has proved to be a key piece of the Toledo's sixth-ranked offense down the stretch of the season.

Zach Quinn, DE, 31: Quinn recorded 51 tackles from the defensive end position and finished with two sacks on the season. He was a consistent force in the trenches all year long and stopped ball carriers in the backfield four times in 2017.

Ja'Wuan Woodley, OLB, 30: After missing the Bowling Green game, Woodley returned with a season-high nine tackles on senior day against Western Michigan. The senior outside linebacker also finished with two sacks and 51 tackles, also intercepting a pass and making an impact in zone coverage. Woodley, a former All-MAC selection and Boca Raton Bowl MVP, is one of the Rockets' most talented players and hopes to perform well in his final bowl game of a fantastic college career.

Jameson Vest, K, 37: With Jeremiah Detmer and Jameson Vest passing through the program, you might as well call Toledo "Kicker U" now. A rarity for college kickers nowadays, Vest has been consistent and reliable, hardly ever missing the easy kicks. The junior converted on 24-of-28 attempts in 2017, hitting 4-of-5 between 40 and 49 yards. He finished second in the country in successful field goals and his 85.7% rate ranks in the top 20 of the FBS.

Fun facts

  • There have been 16 games that have produced over 100 points this season. Toledo has participated in two of them: a 54-51 win over Tulsa and a 66-37 win over Bowling Green.
  • Toledo ranks sixth in the nation in total yards (6,068) and 15th in points per game (38.7).
  • Out of all quarterbacks with 20 or more touchdown passes, Logan Woodside has the fewest interceptions with three. Baker Mayfield checks in at second with just five interceptions. And Woodside's TD-INT ratio of 8:1 ranks highest among all quarterbacks that fit the category.
  • Toledo holds the longest streak in the MAC with eight consecutive winning seasons. The streak actually has surpassed Northern Illinois' impressive streak that lasted from 2009 through 2015.
  • Toledo never entered the AP Poll this season but received a maximum of 31 votes in the Week 11 poll, good for 28th. No MAC team would ever enter the poll, but Toledo was closest. However, the Rockets have recovered since the 38-10 loss to Ohio and currently hold 13 votes to their name (30th).
  • Jason Candle is the first coach to win 10 games at Toledo since Tom Amstutz did in his first season back in 2001.
  • The combined record of the teams responsible for Toledo's two losses is 18-5 (.783).