After a 3-4 start to the season, Toledo was in desperate search of its typically-dominant offense. When the Rockets needed it most, Jason Candle and the Rockets booted up the offense, traveled to Kalamazoo, and left Western Michigan’s defense in shambles.
With the entire offense performing above standard, Toledo wrecked the Broncos’ six-game winning streak with a 51-24 offensive clinic at Waldo Stadium. The victory snaps the Rockets’ two-game skid and puts the reigning MAC champions back to .500 and still reasonably alive in the MAC West title race (2-2).
Western Michigan and Toledo traded a total of three punts to start the action. After a short punt that landed in Broncos’ territory, Toledo’s offense finally gained the short field it needed to test Western Michigan. On the first play from scrimmage on the 43-yard drive, a 21-yard sprint from Art Thompkins set the tone for Toledo for the rest of the night. The Rockets finished the drive with a touchdown pass from quarterback Mitchell Guadagni to senior receiver Cody Thompson.
Thompson scored a hat trick of touchdowns on the night, immediately following up his only collegiate game without a reception. Thompson’s re-arrival on the scene, along with contributions from wideouts Jon’Vea Johnson (56 yards) and Diontae Johnson (49) allowed Toledo’s offense to perform in a way that hadn’t been seen since the victory over Bowling Green.
On Western Michigan’s ensuing drive trailing 7-0, true freshman quarterback Kaleb Eleby checked in to the game. Jon Wassink suffered an apparent right foot injury while attempting to run for a first down on the game’s opening drive. Despite absolutely zero collegiate experience, the true freshman elevated Western Michigan’s offense immediately.
After a 42-yard run by power back Jamauri Bogan threw the Broncos into favorable field position, Eleby connected with true freshman wide receiver Jayden Reed on a screen pass. Reed, who now has eight receiving touchdowns to his name in 2018, ran down the right sideline for a 25-yard score to tie it up.
Toledo regained the lead with a masterpiece of a drive from Guadagni. Finding a wide open Jon’Vea Johnson on the sideline for 32 yards pierced the Rockets into Broncos territory. Guadagni finished by connecting with Diontae Johnson for a second-consecutive score and a 14-7 lead.
Following a Western Michigan punt, field goals were among the MAC West rivals during each of the next three possessions. But this streak was finally broken when Eleby completed three passes on an 87-yard drive. His final completion was a 62-yard bomb to Reed, and the freshman somehow retained his balance, stayed on his feet, and scored once again.
At this point, the Broncos trailed 20-14 at home, but they were seeing a star quarterback in the making. Eleby entered halftime 8/8 with 146 passing yards, and two touchdowns in the game and in his brief career. That equates to a QB rating of 335.8.
But Toledo still had 24 seconds before the half. On this drive, Guadagni would suffer another injury on the season. After struggling to move in an attempt to take the field, Eli Peters took over under center. Peters drew a vital roughing the passer penalty on a Hail Mary attempt before halftime, and this flag set up Jameson Vest (now second all-time in Toledo field goals made) for a 45-yard field goal. At halftime, Toledo was in front 20-14.
With a fired up offense getting the ball at halftime, Toledo had no problem running up the score. Candle drew up a flea-flicker, and the execution was flawless. Peters pitched the ball to Shakif Seymour, who pitched it to Desmond Phillips, and then back to Peters. The quarterback launched the pigskin to tight end Reggie Gilliam who found the end zone for a 34-yard score and a two-possession lead.
Western Michigan failed to respond. Running back LeVante Bellamy attempted to pick up extra yards on an 11-yard carry, but he dropped the ball onto the turf before falling down. Toledo recovered, and Peters quickly found Cody Thompson for a 18-yard score in the right corner of the end zone.
Trailing 37-17, the miscues would only repeat for Tim Lester’s team. A blocked punt resulted in more favorable field position for Toledo. For the third time, the Rockets would score a touchdown on a time that initiated in enemy territory. Bryant Koback, a game-high 99 rushing yards, punched it up the middle for a 3-yard score to ultimately put things out of hand at 44-17.
Bogan put the Broncos back on the board with about five minutes remaining in the Toledo-dominated third quarter, but the Broncos were unable to cut their deficit further than 20. Falling just short on a 4th-and-2 on Toledo’s 40 was the final straw for the home team.
Toledo responded to this fourth down stop with a 40-yard Koback run, and eventually, Thompson’s third touchdown reception of the night. He finished with six receptions and 63 yards, performing at a high level regardless of the quarterback taking the snap.
In a duel between the top two MAC offenses, Toledo’s won the yards battle 515-432. In a surprising twist, both starting quarterbacks permanently left the game due to injuries, and the backups exhibited pinpoint accuracy and avoided turnovers. Peters, entering the game completing passes at a 45% rate, finished 8/14, while Eleby started his Bronco career at 23/28.
Western Michigan could not take advantage of home-field in Kalamazoo and dropped to 4-1 in MAC play after the shellacking from Toledo. The Broncos already attained bowl eligibility, but that feat finally looks more-than-likely for Toledo. Toledo recovered from a 14-point loss versus Buffalo with a 27-point win over the MAC West co-frontrunner. Now at 4-4 with a manageable schedule and a performing offense, things are finally looking upward for Toledo.
Both teams are home next week, with Toledo battling Ball State on Wednesday and Western Michigan facing Ohio on Thursday.