This season, the Mid-American Conference West Division may have been as competitive as it’s been in quite some time.
Not only were the reigning league champion Western Michigan decently competitive under first-year coach Tim Lester, but both Central Michigan and Northern Illinois finished with eights wins. Even 5-7 Eastern Michigan had six losses come at under seven points or less.
But for the Toledo Rockets, nothing was going to stop them from making their first conference title game appearance Saturday in over a decade, clinching the division last week with a decisive home win over the Broncos.
“This is a 12-month process and certainly a long time,” UT coach Jason Candle said. “A lot of team meetings, a lot of morning workouts, a lot of times where myself and our coaching staff have been able to be in front of our team and to really put into perspective what we wanted to get accomplished.”
Coming into the season as the odds-on favorite by the coaches and media, the Rockets, ended up winning 10 games for the first time since 2000. For their eforts, they’ll face the Akron Zips for the second time in over a month, this time on a neutral field.
The previous meeting between the two teams ended in a 48-21 blowout at the Glass Bowl with UT posting over 600 yards of total offense, led by fifth-year quarterback Logan Woodside and senior running back Terry Swanson.
“We're in a unique situation where in our conference anybody can beat anybody at any given moment,” Candle said. “It forces you to cross all the T's and dot all the I's each and every day, and you hope that your seniors and the culture in your locker room allows your team to do that and continue to do that.”
Candle is in his second-year with Toledo after Matt Campbell left for Iowa State in 2016. The former offensive coordinator gave a lot of praise to Akron’s Terry Bowden, who hadn’t clinched the MAC East Division in the five previous years as head coach.
As an 18-point underdog, Bowden isn’t bringing attention to the massive difference in favoritism. The 61-year-old once led Auburn to a near-upset over Peyton Manning and Tennessee in the 1997 SEC Championship Game, despite being a three-touchdown dark horse.
“The Bowden name is, you know, that's been a major part of college football for a long time,” Candle said. “(Bowden) is a great, great man and great human being and certainly a very well-respected coach. It's fun to compete against all the coaches in our conference.”
Differences From Before
For Woodside, the previous win over Akron last October has no bearing to what’ll happen on Saturday.
“We definitely take some of the positives that we did well in that game and some of the negatives and learn from it,” Woodside said. “We know that they're going to be ready to go and really good on offense and defense. We're definitely going to have to come ready to play.”
Woodside, who’s thrown for 24 touchdowns and just three interceptions this year, torched the Akron defense by recording over 300 yards passing. By the end of the regular season,Woodside totalled 3,451 yards through the air, pushing him past Bruce Gradkowski as Toledo’s all-time leading passer.
“We have come really close each and every year, and to get over the hump finally, I think we really harped on it as seniors,” Woodside said. “I think getting up to this point that's what we've done and tomorrow it's just another day, another opportunity to go out there and put on that midnight blue and go out and play.”
The MAC Offensive Player of the Year and Vern Smith Award winner is pitted against an Akron defense than ranks 10th in the conference in yards allowed per game (421.6) but is second behind Central Michigan in total interceptions with 17.
Junior linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III, who earned first-team All-MAC honors earlier this week, leads the Zips with 118 total tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and five sacks.
“They play a lot of man coverage and it's a really solid unit,” Woodside said. “The linebacking core up front and the secondary, they do a good job of communicating really well and try to put you in positions where you've got to go make plays and we're certainly looking forward to that going forward tomorrow.”