It was the first day of bowl season. Two 9-3 teams played 60 minutes of competitive football, with neither side putting the game out of reach. After eight total touchdowns, Appalachian State's kicker Michael Rubino chipped in a 39-yard field goal with just over five minutes remaining to secure a 31-28 lead. Toledo drove right down the field, but Jameson Vest's 30-yard attempt did not fly through the uprights. Game.
Appalachian State knocked off Toledo in Montgomery, Alabama, claiming a three-point victory in the Camellia Bowl. A year later, both programs have returned key starters and have sustained their success and will meet again in Alabama.
Toledo takes on Appalachian State on Saturday night in Mobile at Ladd-Peebles Stadium for the Dollar General Bowl. The Rockets aim to avenge the Mountaineers' 2016 Camellia Bowl victory and cap off an impressive season that featured the program's first MAC championship since 2005.
Toledo was picked to finish first in the preseason MAC polls, and it was a testament to Logan Woodside's dominance. The senior quarterback will play his final collegiate game in Mobile, and he's enjoyed a storied career wearing blue and gold. Woodside leaped Bruce Gradkowski's as the Rockets' all-time leading passer, led the FBS in passing touchdowns in 2016, and has an opportunity to deliver Toledo's first 12-win season since 1971.
Woodside threw for 247 yards and two scores in his last meeting with the Mountaineers, and he's been on the money since. The star pocket passer tossed 28 touchdowns and just five interceptions, throwing for 3,758 yards through 13 games this year. He's well on pace for his second 4,000-yard season in a Toledo uniform.
Although Woodside is the centerpiece of Jason Candle's eighth-ranked offense, there are plenty of talented pieces that surround him. Fellow senior Terry Swanson is the leader of the rushing game, and he's shattered his personal best and achieved 1,319 yards on the ground this season. He's a strong runner with a similar motor to former Toledo halfback Kareem Hunt, and there will certainly be comparisons between the two mentioned on Saturday night.
Swanson is accompanied by Art Thompkins and Shakif Seymour — two other capable running backs that should bolster Toledo's program going forward. The Rockets seamlessly transitioned from David Fluellen to Kareem Hunt to Terry Swanson, and after Candle received an extension, there's no doubt that Toledo's rushing offense will maintain its level of dominance for years to come.
The other stars of this offense are First Team All-MAC selections Diontae Johnson and offensive tackle Brant Weiss. Weiss has done a solid job anchoring a strong offensive line all year, one that held its own against fierce pass rushing teams like Northern Illinois.
Johnson was the team's breakout star this season. The sophomore receiver sits at 1,257 receiving yards (seventh in FBS) and is a 100-yard game away from cracking the top five. Johnson didn't record a catch against Appalachian State's secondary last December, but guarding a receiver who tallied 480 yards in a three-game stretch should definitely concern Mountaineers' corners. He averages 17.5 yards per catch, so Johnson often appears past the sticks and is a frequenter on deep post and streak routes.
Defensively, Toledo has been inconsistent. The team's rushing defense struggled in several games this year, especially in double-digit losses to Miami (FL) and Ohio. But the defense also did a stellar job of shutting down the offenses of Western Michigan and Central Michigan — offenses that have posed as a problem for other opponents. Linebackers Tyler Taafe and Ja'Wuan Woodley will especially be called on to halt Appalachian State's run game.
Toledo only allowed 119 passing yards in last year's Camellia Bowl, but the porous run defense was what allowed Appalachian State to consistently score touchdowns. Running back Marcus Cox ran for 143 yards and quarterback Taylor Lamb added another 126 in a Mountaineers' victory in Montgomery. Luckily for the Rockets, Cox has graduated but Toledo's defense will meet junior halfback Jalin Moore, who closed the 2017 season on a hot streak.
Special teams lost the game for the Rockets last season, but Toledo now possesses a new and improved Jameson Vest. Vest has come up clutch several times this season, notably defeating Tulsa on a field goal as time expired. The junior has sunk an efficient 25 of his 30 attempts this year.
Although he has yet to hit a 50-yarder, Vest is consistent from long range, nailing 5-of-6 attempts from 40-49 yards. If the game comes down to a field goal again, Vest's leg should play in Toledo's favor. But it is important to remember that the forecast predicts rainy conditions in Mobile.
Appalachian State Mountaineers
The 2016 Camellia Bowl champions may have decreased their win total to eight in the regular season this year, but that didn't stop the Mountaineers from winning their second-straight Sun Belt co-championship.
Appalachian State, despite another Sun Belt title, suffered two bad losses this year. The black and gold fell to two 4-8 programs that typically sit in college football's cellar. In back-to-back road games, the team couldn't defeat UMass and Louisiana-Monroe.
But under Scott Satterfield, the Mountaineers would bounce back and they closed the year with a season-best 63 points in a rout of Louisiana. The offense is still under the direction of senior quarterback Taylor Lamb.
Lamb primarily tore up Toledo as a rusher last season but the senior focused on passing this year. The four-year starter threw for career-highs in yards and touchdowns, while achieving the minimal amount of interceptions during his time in Boone. Like Woodside, he is an incredible decision maker and has plenty of composure in the pocket. This quarterback matchup between two seasoned veterans will be a must-watch — especially with both gunslingers playing their final collegiate game.
While Marcus Cox is gone, Jalin Moore leads Appalachian State on the ground (215 rushing yards per game). Moore finished the 2017 campaign with 114, 239, and 110 yards in his final three games, scoring five touchdowns over the final stretch.
Appalachian State elected to run on 54.8% of plays this season, as the team also fielded a decent passing offense. Ike Lewis and Thomas Hennigan are Lamb's two primary targets to watch in this one. Toledo's Trevon Mathis and Josh Teachey will be two of the Rockets' primary counters in the secondary. Mathis is a cornerback opposing quarterbacks prefer to avoid, as the veteran tallied three interceptions during Toledo's great season.
But the hero of last year's Camellia Bowl will likely be sidelined for the contest. Kicker Michael Rubino, who connected on last year's game-winning field goal, was benched in favor of freshman Chandler Staton after faring 1-of-4 during a mid-October game against Coastal Carolina. But Staton has yet to miss a field goal this season, so the Mountaineers will likely stick with what's been working. The Vest vs. Staton kicker matchup should be intriguing because there shouldn't be many missed field goals on Saturday night.
Keys to the Game
- Toledo must keep a balanced offense. Appalachian State doesn't have a specific weak point on defense, and the Rockets play best when they're balancing their attack. The potential wet conditions could adversely affect deep passes, so Toledo will have to rely on Swanson, Thompkins, and Seymour to lead the offense. The line must win the battle in the trenches in order for the Rockets to drive down the field and score at their normal pace. Defensively, containing Taylor Lamb and preventing him from winning the game on his legs is important. Toledo struggled with this last season, and the Rockets cannot afford to let Lamb escape the pocket when they call blitz packages.
- Appalachian State needs to limit all big plays. There was actually a game this year where Toledo scored 58 points and didn't score a touchdown on a possession of more than four plays. Jason Candle likes to roll the dice and aim for the jackpot often, and the Mountaineers need to play deep zone frequently to prevent Diontae Johnson and the other receivers from burning them downfield. Also, establishing a strong run game is important, as the rushing defense has been Toledo's achilles heel in 2017.
- Time and date: Saturday, December 23, 2017 — 7 pm EST
- Location: — Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, AL
- Network: ESPN
- Spread: Toledo (-7)
- ESPN FPI Predictor: Toledo has 60% chance to beat Appalachian State.
- All-time series: Appalachian State leads 1-0. The Mountaineers defeated the Rockets in last year's back-and-forth Camellia Bowl, where no team scored on two consecutive occasions.
- Toledo Bowl Notes: The Rockets are 2-1 in the CFP era, 1-1 under Candle (coached bowl game after Matt Campbell's departure). Toledo's last bowl win was in 2015 when it defeated Temple in the Boca Raton Bowl.
- Appalachian State Bowl Notes: The Mountaineers are 2-0 in the CFP era, and 2-0 since joining the FBS. Both Appalachian State bowl victories are over MAC teams in Alabama, but the previous two were in the Camellia Bowl (Montgomery) instead of the Dollar General Bowl (Mobile).
This is a different Toledo team and a different Appalachian State team. The Rockets slightly improved and won the conference this season, while Appalachian State decreased its win total and suffered several bad losses. Toledo's offense is fully capable of a scoring outburst in this game, especially given the versatility and star power on this offense. It's Logan Woodside's final collegiate game (and Taylor Lamb's), but I see Woodside earning that bowl win that he missed during his spectacular 2016 season. It's been since 2011 (Northern Illinois) since a MAC champion won a bowl game, and that trend will reverse this year, as Appalachian State's offense stays a step behind Toledo all night.
Prediction: Toledo 38, Appalachian State 28