For the first time since Week 1, the MAC will host a football game not on a Saturday.
Midweek MACtion is approaching, but first, we’ll have a Thursday night clash between the past two conference champions, Toledo (3-4) and Western Michigan (6-2).
Rebounding from a MAC title hasn’t been easy in recent years, as neither of the last two conference champions have been selected for a bowl game in the following. Western Michigan understands Toledo’s disappointing MAC title hangover, as the Broncos reduced their win total from 13 to 6 after winning the 2016 MAC Championship game with a senior-studded class.
The Rockets have now dropped two-straight conference games, allowing 24 unanswered points to Buffalo at home to lose 31-17 last Saturday. Toledo’s still struggling to decide if Mitchell Guadagni or Eli Peters is the team’s starting quarterback, and the Rockets continue to flip between the more mobile junior and the pocket-passing sophomore.
While Toledo is in the middle of a cold streak, Western Michigan continues to roll as the hottest team in the conference. Tim Lester’s Broncos are tied for the seventh-highest win streak in the nation at six. Although the team dropped its first two matchups to talented Syracuse and Michigan programs, it has nicely recovered to average 41 points per game in the last outings.
Western Michigan’s offense primarily runs on its ground attack, which ranks 11th in the nation in total rushing yards produced. Junior running back LeVante Bellamy is finally enjoying an injury-free season and the speedster has produced two-consecutive 145-yard games on the ground. Bellamy checks in as the nation’s eighth leading rusher with 821, and his counterpart, Jamauri Bogan, has provided an additional attacker to keep the offense versatile.
Bogan, now a senior, leads the team with nine rushing touchdowns. The New Jersey native has been stellar in recent weeks, combining for 171 rushing yards and five touchdowns in the Broncos’ two latest victories.
Add quarterback Jon Wassink, a powerful runner who refuses to shy away from contact, and Western Michigan looks absolutely loaded in the ground game. In downpour conditions, Western Michigan elected to run the ball 55 times and pass on just nine plays in a 35-10 win over rival Central Michigan. Three of these runs were touchdowns by the quarterback, who has run for six scores in his second year as the team’s starter.
Can Toledo stop this rushing attack? Past results haven’t been promising.
Toledo ranks 97th in the nation in rushing defense, allowing 188.9 yards per game. The team showed improvement against Buffalo last week but couldn’t stop a 25-yard touchdown by Buffalo’s Jaret Patterson to seal the game. The Rockets lost several key defenders on the front-seven this offseason, but senior inside linebacker Tyler Taafe (26 total tackles) is doing his best to lead the unit to prosperity.
Defensive struggles aren’t exclusive to Toledo, either.
The Bronco defense has shown plenty of improvement, especially since the early-season debacles against Syracuse and Michigan. Despite being victims of 14 opposing passing touchdowns this year, the pass defense is now labeled as an above-average unit in terms of yards allowed per game. But inconsistency has been the biggest problem.
The Broncos just limited Central Michigan to 10 points. But in the previous game, they allowed 35 to a dilapidated Bowling Green team that was performing at such a low level, it fired its coach midseason. Syracuse scored 55 at Waldo Stadium on this team and Miami (OH) registered 39 points on them in Oxford.
Even though Toledo scored 17 last week, it’s offense reaches a dangerous potential with Mitch Guadagni at quarterback. In a Week 4 win over Nevada, Toledo bested the Wolf Pack in a 63-44 shootout behind Guadagni’s four passing touchdowns. The Rockets’ usually adept passing offense has fallen asleep in recent weeks, but if there’s anyone who can re-ignite that offense, it’s Diontae Johnson.
The speedy receiver is capable of creating any big play once the pigskin lands in his arms. From receptions to punt returns, he is Toledo’s most dangerous player on the field at all times. Last Saturday, the junior bolstered the Rockets’ offense by turning on the burners and scoring an 80-yard touchdown to put his team ahead by 10 points. Unfortunately, that was only one of two receptions for the 2017 First Team All-MAC selection. Targeting Johnson more should be a focus for Toledo this week in order to revive the air attack.
Toledo’s level of play on the offensive side of the ball will serve as the x-factor in deciding Thursday night’s outcome. When scoring over 50 points this season, the Rockets are 3-0. However, when scoring under 30, they’re 0-4. We’ve seen two completely different versions of Toledo this year: the unstoppable one that perfectly executes on offense and the one we’ve seen in recent weeks that struggles running the ball and opening up the passing game.
- Time and date: Thursday, October 25 — 7 p.m. ET
- Venue: Waldo Stadium — Kalamazoo, MI
- Network: ESPN2
- Spread: Western Michigan (-6.5)
- ESPN FPI Predictor: Western Michigan has 62.8% chance to win
- Toledo leads series, 42-30
The Rockets clinched the MAC West on Black Friday one year ago by downing Western Michigan in a lopsided 37-10 final. Just one year before on Black Friday, Western Michigan sealed its fate to Detroit in the rain by taking down Toledo, 55-35 at Waldo Stadium.
Recently, this series has been very streaky. Toledo claimed every game from 2001-2005. Western Michigan won each battle from 2006-2009, and the series reverted back in the Rockets’ favor from 2010-2013.
This is one of the longer running annual series in college football, featuring a matchup between the conference rivals every year since 1950.
It’s time Toledo finally gets its offense in rhythm again.
Jason Candle is keeping Western Michigan’s defense guessing in the film room by not revealing his starter yet, but I predict he’ll go with Guadagni. Guadagni reminds me of a certain quarterback the Broncos’ defense struggled to contain earlier this season, and that QB is Syracuse’s Eric Dungey.
In a 55-42 loss, Dungey rushed for 200 yards, threw for 184, and recorded three total touchdowns at Waldo Stadium. That game stands as the only 2018 loss in Kalamazoo for Lester and the Broncos. Guadagni should be able to post similar results given his dynamic running game and the edge Toledo’s receivers have over Western Michigan’s secondary.
Western Michigan is a great team, but winning seven in a row is hard. During its win streak, four of the six teams the Broncos defeated have two wins or fewer. The other wins are over 4-4 Eastern Michigan (who beat Toledo) and 3-5 Miami (OH) by a combined four points. Bellamy and Bogan should have strong days against Toledo, but I don’t think Western Michigan’s defense will record enough stops to win Thursday night.
Toledo needs this one badly, or else it’ll be staring down a 3-5 record. And I think the team finally wakes up from this slumber.
Prediction: Toledo 38, Western Michigan 34