The Toledo Rockets waited over a decade before making its first Mid-American Conference championship appearance since 2004.
Saturday’s matchup at Ford Field featured a rematch from the regular-season, when UT beat the Akron Zips 48-21 on Oct. 21 at the Glass Bowl. Since the loss, Akron finished the four-game stretch with one loss to gain bowl eligibility and its first MAC East Division crown since 2005.
The Zips embraced the underdog mentality, sporting a different vibe from a month ago, with its redshirt freshman quarterback Kato Nelson leading the charge. But nothing was going to stop Toledo and its high powered offense.
Despite a solid second-half comeback as well as forcing a total of six turnovers, Akron couldn’t erase a 38-point deficit, falling 45-28.
Fifth-year senior quarterback Logan Woodside came out of the gates slinging, recording his first touchdown pass at the 10:10 mark of the first quarter on Toledo’s second offensive possession, finding sophomore wide receiver Diontae Johnson for the 29-yard reception.
Johnson caught the ball over his head while being defended in man coverage. The two-play drive was set up by a 48-yard punt return from Danzel McKinley-Lewis.
The MAC Offensive Player of the Year connected with Johnson again with under seven minutes left before halftime. Johnson, the Ruskin, Florida, native had to turn his shoulder in the near corner of the end zone to make it 21-0.
Three plays prior, Johnson was stripped by Akron sophomore linebacker John Lako but the ball rolled out of bounds at the 15-yard line, which would have been the third total turnover of the half for the Rockets.
Nelson began the opening series at quarterback for Akron, ending the week-long speculation if whether Thomas Woodson would start after regaining eligibility. The fifth-year senior was suspended before the Miami game three weeks ago for violating team rules.
Nelson’s outing was short lived, completing two of his six passes for 18 yards in three series, before being benched midway through the first quarter.
All but two of the Zips drives ended in a punt with their one scoring chance being negated by penalties and missed calls.
Junior linebacker Brian Bell was credited with the fumble recovery at the Toledo 39 on the first play of the second quarter. Akron advanced to the 20 before Woodson connected with junior tight end Newman Williams on a quick dump to tie the score at seven.
But senior offensive lineman Jovann Letuli got the flag for both illegal formation and false start on back-to-back plays. More dismay followed as the 42-yard field goal attempt by Nick Gasser was blocked by UT’s Nate Childress which was returned for 36 yards, setting up Swanson’s first touchdown run from three-yards out.
The second recorded turnover by Toledo had little damage when Woodside threw an interception to first-team All-MAC linebacker Ulysees Gilbert, resulting in a quick three-and-out.
The Rockets ran into the locker room with a four touchdown lead as their final possession started at their own three-yard line. Eight plays later, Woodside’s 29-yard throw and third touchdown was brought in by junior wide receiver Jon’Vea Johnson.
Toledo received the ball, starting the drive at the 23, getting solid carries from Swanson and freshman running back Shakif Seymour to set up first-and-goal inside the Akron eight-yard line.
However, in what would require a review from the officials, the knee of Swanson was not down before he coughed up the ball in the end zone, resulting in a touchback and the fourth turnover committed by Toledo.
A botched 24-yard punt from Gasser on the first possession of the half for Akron put the Rockets in short field position. Kicker Jameson Vest, who missed a 33-yard field goal late in the first quarter, redeemed himself at the 7:26 mark of the third for his 25th made kick of the season.
Down 31, the Zips were forced to leave the offense on the field on fourth-and-two at the 49. Nelson, who returned for the second half’s entirety, threw an incomplete pass to freshman tight end Kobie Booker, leaving Woodside to record his fourth and final passing touchdown less than three minutes later.
The first scoring drive for Akron ended with 30 seconds before the fourth quarter with senior running back Manny Morgan getting the six points from seven yards out. The touchdown was set up by a 59-yard completion from Nelson to junior receiver Kwadarrius Smith.
Akron’s second touchdown drive needed just one play, coming off Woodside’s second interception to junior defensive back Jordan George, who returned it to the Toledo 29.
Nelson’s first touchdown pass occurred eight seconds later, finding senior receiver Austin Wolf in the back corner of the end zone.
Back-to-back fumbles by both teams just over a minute into the fourth quarter was followed with a 54-yard touchdown run by Swanson. Akron could have scored in its third of the four possessions, facing first-and-10 at the UT 18, but Nelson was sacked twice to force a turnover on downs.
Nelson got his second scoring throw at the 6:09 mark, despite taking a huge delivery from the Toledo defense and being taken out for the remainder of the game. Redshirt junior quarterback Robbie Kelley finished the game for the Zips, leading them on a 12-play, 85-drive scoring drive.
Toledo Offensive Statistics (Individual)
Woodside: 23 completions, 37 attempts, 307 yards, four touchdowns, two interceptions.
Swanson: 21 carries, 182 yards, two touchdowns
Seymour: Eight carries, 42 yards
Di. Johnson: Nine receptions, 118 yards, two touchdowns
Jo. Johnson: Six receptions, 103 yards, one touchdown
Akron Offensive Statistics (Individual)
Nelson: Eight completions, 18 attempts, 177 yards, two touchdowns
Woodson: Five completions, 14 attempts, 35 yards, one interception
Morgan: 11 carries, 52 yards, one touchdown
Edwards: 10 carries, 47 yards
Smith: Three receptions, 114 yards, one touchdown
Wolf: Two receptions, 41 yards, one touchdown
Toledo claims its 11th win of the season, the most ever since 1995, heading to its seventh bowl appearance in eight years and the second straight under coach Jason Candle. The Rockets are currently slated to play in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl or Dollar General Bowl, according to ESPN’s latest bowl projections.
The Zips will play in their second bowl game in three years. Their seven wins are the second most in the six-year tenure of coach Terry Bowden. Spots Illustrated has Akron traveling south for the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama, to face Arkansas State.