Saturday night in Fresno was not one of the better performances we’ve seen out of the Toledo Rockets. In fact, the 49-27 result on the scoreboard at Bulldog Stadium was much closer than the game actually seemed, thanks to a combo of garbage time touchdowns.
Toledo held a 13-7 lead in the early going, but the absence of quarterback Mitchell Guadagni proved fatal to the team’s chances. Guadagni, sidelined with a concussion, was replaced by sophomore Eli Peters.
The struggling offense and porous defense brought back flashbacks of the Rockets’ disastrous 34-0 loss in the 2017 Dollar General Bowl. Here’s what we learned from Fresno State skating past Toledo in Central California.
Toledo’s offense is nothing without Guadagni
When Guadagni was in the game, the two teams remained competitive. The junior quarterback anchored three scoring drives for the team before leaving the game with 3:21 left in the second quarter. At this point, the starting quarterback had already thrown one touchdown pass and rushed for 55 yards (which remained a team-high for the game), while Toledo only trailed the Bulldogs 21-13.
The run on which Guadagni received a concussion marked the turning point of the game, when calamity struck for the Rockets. On the following play, a fresh Eli Peters took a sack and the rest was history for Jason Candle’s team.
Guadagni and Peters spent all of camp competing for the starting job, and it is apparent at this point that Guadagni is one of the most valuable pieces to this team. His mobility is makes him a dangerous all-around threat, and his passing skills have been on full display too. Guadagni ranks fourth in the FBS in both passing yards per attempt at 10.7 and overall passer rating with a 196.6. The three quarterbacks that rank in front of him in both categories are Heisman candidates: Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray, and West Virginia’s Will Grier.
The loss of Guadagni exponentially killed Toledo’s chances in this game, and the team was only able to post 13 points before the game got out of hand. Just one week prior, Guadagni led the offense to a 66-43 shootout win.
Once again, Toledo running backs are disappearing
Without the team’s best passer (and rusher), it seemed practical for Toledo to establish a run game to allow Peters to settle into his role. This run game was never established, and has never been this fall. With Shakif Seymour and Art Thompkins in the midst of underwhelming seasons, the team has turned to freshman Bryant Koback for production on the ground. Koback leads all running backs with 146 rushing yards through four games — averaging 4.2 per carry.
But with Koback posting just 27 yards Saturday night, the team worked running back Ronnie Jones into the backfield. Jones ranked first among the halfbacks with 51 yards and actually recorded the longest carry of the season for a Toledo back. It was 24 yards.
Jones may be the short-term answer at the position, but the running backs have struggled all year long. And a lot of the cause is the offensive line, which lost plenty of veteran talent last offseason. That same line yielded five sacks to Fresno State.
It’s hard to call the Rockets MAC West frontrunners
After demolishing VMI on Week 1, 66-3, while the rest of the MAC struggled, it seemed logical that Toledo was destined to repeat as division champions.
Toledo’s only FBS win in three attempts is a 63-44 win over Nevada where the offense did its job but the defense showed plenty of struggles. In the Rockets’ two losses, the team has allowed 49 points. Miami (FL) silenced the team at the Glass Bowl by 22 and Fresno State imposed a 27-point defeat on them.
Toledo has yet to defeat an opponent of its caliber. The Rockets’ best win remains over a 3-2 Nevada team that only registered three wins a season ago. We’ll learn a lot more about Toledo come conference play, but there’s nothing in particular that’s stood out about this team that separates them from the NIUs, Eastern Michigans, or Western Michigans in the division.
Cody Thompson and Diontae Johnson need targets
Cody Thompson against Fresno State: 1 reception, 28 yards
Diontae Johnson against Fresno State: 3 receptions, 21 yards
Although Guadagni missed a large chunk of the game, any Toledo quarterback should know that the team’s at its best when the two star receivers are getting their touches. Having four combined receptions between the two is unacceptable, especially when the run game is failing to show.
Johnson’s second half emergence was the entire region Toledo was even in the Miami game during the third quarter, as he posted 119 yards and two touchdowns that day.
Thompson’s three-touchdown outing against Nevada was how Toledo’s offense functioned at the ridiculously high level it did.
Even though there are pieces in the offense from last season, Toledo should try to replicate the efficient passing game it established last year. That starts when the Rockets’ quarterbacks target the two top wideouts.
The peak of the Mountain West is plentiful
In each of the last four years, the Mountain West crown has been rewarded to Boise State and San Diego State. The Aztecs and the Broncos are two of the most consistent teams in the country, and both seem like staple 9+ win teams.
Fresno State is nearing that category too in Jeff Tedford’s second season. The Bulldogs participated in the Mountain West title game last December and although falling to Boise State, the Bulldogs have proven they’re back in 2018. Fresno State demolished UCLA at the world-famous Rose Bowl, 38-14, and convincingly defeated one of the better Group of Five teams in Toledo. The Bulldogs’ lone loss occurred against Minnesota on a wild, game-sealing interception in the game’s final minutes.
Add 5-1 Hawaii, who has looked much-improved under FBS passing touchdowns leader Cole McDonald, and you have yourself an exciting, top-heavy conference.
With a vast array of talent from QB Marcus McMaryion to WR KeeSean Johnson to ILB Jeffery Allison, Fresno State plenty of pieces to remain competitive at the peak of the Mountain West.