Akron achieves the unexpected
The Akron Zips (7-5) left the Glass Bowl on October 21 with a horrendous taste in their mouths. A team coming off a statement road win at Western Michigan appeared to be on the upswing, but reality settled in against the Toledo Rockets (10-2). Toledo handed the Zips a 48-21 loss, setting Terry Bowden's team back to 4-4, a .500 record.
For a team that dropped four-straight to end 2017 after bolting out to a 5-3 record, 4-4 didn't look too promising. But Akron completed the regular season at full throttle, claiming three of its final four contests, including a landmark upset win over Ohio on November 14.
The home victory over the 8-4 Bobcats all but sealed the MAC East division in the Zips' favor. After receiving no love in preseason polls and starting the season 1-3, Akron defeated all odds to win the division and appear in its first MAC Championship Game since 2005.
But the Zips weren't the only team shedding off a long MAC Championship drought
No heartbreak this year, Toledo wins the West
There's no MAC team that's won as many moral MAC Championships as the Rockets. Since 2011, there are plenty of years Toledo could call itself the conference's best team, winning at least nine games in six seasons during this span. But the Rockets could never destroy the Northern Illinois' MAC West dynasty, and Toledo took a backseat to the Huskies for years. Even though Tim Beckman and Matt Campbell brought plenty of success to the northern Ohio town, it wasn't until Jason Candle arrived when Toledo would finally win the MAC West.
For the first time since 2004, Toledo will compete for the conference crown. Unlike Akron, this was completely expected as the Rockets were the runaway favorite to win the conference back in August. On paper, it was easy to see how electric Toledo's offense it was with senior quarterback Logan Woodside under center, running back Terry Swanson leading the charge at halfback, and a talented array of wide receivers.
The Rockets were the last-standing undefeated team in the MAC, losing their first contest on the road to Miami (FL) on September 23. Despite leading at halftime, Toledo's defense was no match for Mark Walton and the Hurricanes, who defeated the Rockets 52-30 in a loss to the potential ACC champion.
Other than that quality defeat, Toledo's lone setback was a 38-10 defeat at Ohio. Luckily for the Rockets, there will be no rematch versus the Bobcats in Detroit, but Toledo learned from that game that the run defense can be this programs' achilles heel. After receiving the second loss, Toledo easily finished the season with 10 wins — the second such occurrence for the program in three seasons.
This year's MAC Championship Game will be a rematch, as Toledo pulverized Akron by 27 points at the Glass Bowl in mid-to-late October. Akron struggled with pass defense in that matchup, allowing Logan Woodside to throw for 304 yards and five touchdowns. Woodside's favorite target on the day, Jon'Vea Johnson, recorded 102 yards and two touchdowns in the overwhelming victory.
Akron's key to this game will be limiting this formidable passing game. Toledo's offense throws for nearly 300 yards per game, and secondary players including Kyron Brown and Shawn Featherstone must excel in coverage in order to effectively ruin Toledo's afternoon. The Rockets counter with a receiving unit that includes Diontae Johnson, Jon'Vea Johnson, and Danzel McKinley-Lewis — a speedy trio of wide receivers that are all capable of burning corners down the field. It is interesting to note that all three receivers average above 14.5 yards per catch, serving as capable down field threats.
But Woodside and his targets aren't the only impressive part of Toledo's offense. The rushing game, led by First Team All-MAC selection Terry Swanson, has been stellar all year long, creating a versatile offense under Jason Candle. Swanson leads the charge with a season of over 1,100 yards but he's not the only threat in the backfield. Scoring machine Shakif Seymour (12 touchdowns in 2017) backs up Swanson and averages over six yards per carry, as does Art Thompkins. The trio combines for 2,932 yards so far this year, and Ulysees Gilbert III and the Akron defense will be called upon to not allow this number to exceed 3,000 by a large amount.
Gilbert is an incredible tackler, but he excels in every area of the game on defense. The run stopper has posted 117 tackles and four sacks this season, but he's also starred as a member of the coverage unit and he has frequently perpetrated turnovers.
Forcing turnovers against Toledo will be no easy task, as the Rockets have only given the ball away 10 times this year. Woodside (24 touchdowns, 3 interceptions) stays mistake-free often, but fumbling has been an issue at times for Toledo. Fumbles held the Rockets back in the 28-point loss to Ohio, and Akron could specialize in plopping the pigskin out of ball carriers' hands if it wants to avenge that October loss.
When Toledo's on defense, its performance varies. Sometimes, the Rockets can deliver great performances on this side of the ball, as they held Northern Illinois to 17 points, Central Michigan to 10, and Western Michigan to 10. But this same team struggles with the run defense on occasion. Ohio nearly posted 400 yards on the Toledo defense, Miami managed to feature a 204-yard rusher on just 11 carries, and Tulsa ran for 423 yards and six touchdowns at the Glass Bowl.
But since Toledo is playing Akron instead of Ohio, this worry can be minimized. Akron's leading rusher was senior Manny Morgan, who became one of the team's go-to running backs after the injury of former Ohio State transfer Warren Ball. Morgan only rushed for two touchdowns and his season-high was 55 yards on the ground. He'll split the backfield with Van Edwards, but outside linebacker Ja'Wuan Woodley and the Toledo defense shouldn't see a glaring issue in stopping the Zips' run game.
Akron primarily does damage on offense in the passing game. But the quarterback position is where it gets interesting for the Zips. Quarterback Thomas Woodson started the season and played all the way up until October 28, before sitting out due to suspension. The senior and long-time starter was replaced by the young freshman Kato Nelson.
As shown in his 6-of-20, 69-yard performance in the closer against Kent State, Nelson isn't the most consistent passer but he possesses an incredible ability to escape pressure and move around in the pocket. This feature of his game served him well in the win over Ohio, as the quarterback launched the ball for 322 yards and four touchdowns in just his second career start.
Nelson finished 2-1 as a starter, but there may be a chance we could see the senior return from suspension and earn playing time in the MAC Championship, especially if Akron's offense needs a spark early on. Nelson should start, but Woodson might see playing time. Utilizing multiple quarterbacks in a conference title game is nothing new for the MAC, as Ohio tested this strategy a season ago in Detroit.
- Date and Time: Saturday, December 2 — 12 PM (noon) EST
- Network: ESPN
- Venue: Ford Field — Detroit, MI
- Spread: Toledo (-21.5)
- ESPN FPI Predictor: Toledo has 83.6% chance to win
- All-time series: Toledo leads 11-9. The Rockets have won two straight: 48-17 in 2016 and 48-21 in 2017.
- MAC Championships: Toledo 2 (2001, 2004), Akron 1 (2005)
One team is 10-2. The other is 7-5. Although the disparity between the teams in 2016 was four victories (Western Michigan's 12 to Ohio's 8), the programs were only separated by five points on the field. But, after watching Toledo completely dismantle Akron in October, it's hard to see evidence to suggest the Zips can keep this one competitive. If Akron's offense plays like it did against Ohio, it could manage to keep this one close, but the defense would have to perform at a spectacular level. Terry Bowden's team doesn't field an effective run game, so it might be outmatched on both sides of the ball in this one. There's a reason this game has by far the largest spread of the various conference championships.
Prediction: Toledo 42, Akron 17