The winners of the Mid-American Conference East Division tilt had little care about the perceived notion of being a monumental underdog in Saturday’s MAC championship game at Ford Field.
It certainly wasn’t going to be easy for Akron to take down the league’s top ranked offensive unit led by fifth-year senior quarterback Logan Woodside, but they sure did make it interesting early in the second quarter.
Trailing by a touchdown, the Zips had the ball at the UT 20-yard line after recovering a fumble from a miscue snap. A quick dump pass to freshman tight end Newman Williams could have tied the score at seven, but an illegal formation penalty pushed them back five yards.
Then, a 42-yard attempted field goal was blocked by Nate Childress and returned 36 yards where Toledo got its second touchdown from senior running back Terry Swanson, who had 21 carries for 180 yards and two touchdowns.
“Those guys have played hard on that (defensive) unit all year long,” UT coach Jason Candle said after the 45-28 win. “Sometimes it’s easy to put your guard down and say ‘well we stopped them, we’re going to let them get their three points and get off the field,’ but a lot of great individual effort and certain a huge momentum swing.”
Akron became the sixth team in MAC title history to be shutout in the opening half, eventually breaking the 38-point unanswered run by UT with 22 seconds before the fourth quarter.
Kato Nelson, despite being the starter on Akron’s opening possession, saw very little action in the first half.
The redshirt freshman was benched after the third offensive drive in replacement of fifth-year senior Thomas Woodson, who became eligible after being suspended the final three games of the season for violating team rules. Nelson would complete two passes for 18 yards.
Woodson entered midway through the first quarter, never materializing or staying consistent after his touchdown throw to Williams was negated, finishing with 35 yards and an interception on 5-of-14 passing.
“I’m very comfortable with what we did and planned to do,” Akron coach Terry Bowden said about the quarterback change. “We weren’t moving the ball. We weren’t doing a whole lot right then.”
Nelson did return for the entire second half, leading a respectable comeback that included a pair of touchdowns, only to leave with 6:09 left in the fourth quarter after taking a crunching hit from two Toledo defenders.
“Kato is going to be one of the brightest quarterbacks in this conference,” Bowden said. “He has a great future, but he’s also learning after every play.”
Woodside, meanwhile, finished 23-of-37 for 307 yards and four touchdowns while being named the game’s offensive Most Valuable Player award.
Finishing The Deal
Along with the Rockets, three other programs in the MAC West are bowl eligible this season, with another in Eastern Michigan coming one game short.
Candle asserted how difficult it is for anyone to overcome the grit of the divisional slate, reminding that this is the first time that Toledo has earned outright champion status in over a decade.
“Thee guys set out on a journey back in January and like every team across the country, they want to be champions,” the second-year coach said. “They maintained it throughout the entire year, which is very difficult to do and we are really proud they they were able to finish it.”
UT recorded 561 yards of total offense and 26 first downs, averaging nearly eight yards per play. Two wide receivers finished with over 100-yards receiving in Diontae Johnson (118) and Jon’Vea Johnson (103), combining for three touchdowns.
The 11 wins garnered this season is the most in Toledo history since 1995 and will play in its seventh bowl game in eight years.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Swanson said. “But this team grinded all year and we had great leadership starting with coach Candle preparing us for this moment. It’s definitely special for this city, this university and the fans.”
Toledo lost a mainstay at linebacker early in the final quarter when junior Olasunkanmi Adeniyi was ejected for targeting following a big hit on Nelson.
With UT leading 45-14, Adeniyi made the stop as Nelson recorded a six-yard run the first play of the drive. Adeniyi was not flagged for a personal foul, but the officials did review the play for possible targeting, which was later confirmed.
Due to NCAA regulations, the native of Houston, Texas, will have to sit out the first half of Toledo’s bowl game as the ejection occurred in the second half.
“It’s hard to call targeting,” Bowden said. “But I know one thing, if we don’t solve the concussion problem, we won’t have college football. If we don’t eliminate the argument that concussions are ruining college football, we’re not going to have kids playing. So anything close has to be targeting.”
Adeniyi finished with six tackles, including three for a loss and two sacks.