MAC play is still in its early stages, but one of the most pivotal battles in the West division kicks off at the Glass Bowl this Saturday.
Only three MAC teams have generated three wins in the first five weeks, and Toledo (3-1) and Western Michigan (3-2) are two of them, appearing to fit the mold as conference title contenders.
How the Rockets and Broncos got here
Toledo squandered an early lead to Kentucky in Week 1, but ever since that second half in Lexington, the Rockets have clicked on all cylinders. They shut out their FCS opponent, Murray State to produce their first win of the year. Then, Toledo survived a Hail Mary at the buzzer to stave off Colorado State in Fort Collins in Week 3 and came up with a clutch interception back home to upset BYU in the final minute in Week 4 to win its third-straight contest. The Rockets’ offense looked sharp in its middle two games, but it was the defense which made a major statement versus BYU. Toledo stays at the same venue to face its MAC West rival Western Michigan — a game involving the two best teams in the conference in the College Football Playoff era, in terms of overall winning percentage.
Western Michigan’s road to 3-2 is like the Millennium Force at Cedar Point in Ohio. When the Broncos win they’re high up, but these peaks are followed by instantaneous drops. And after each drop, the Broncos rise right back up to where they were two weeks ago. This cycle has prolonged five Saturdays for a Western Michigan team that alternates between double-digit wins and double-digit losses each weekend. The Broncos’ struggled defensively against Michigan State and Syracuse, allowing more than 500 yards of offense to both teams. But Western Michigan has looked solid against its other competition — quickly putting Monmouth, Georgia State, and Central Michigan to rest by an average margin of 32.7 points.
Toledo has re-structured its offensive identity to a powerful rushing team with a mobile quarterback in Mitchell Guadagni and the running back duo of Bryant Koback and Shakif Seymour. The Rockets rank 10th nationally in rushing yards per game, and the team is picking up 6.0 yards per carry with its plethora of weapons.
Guadagni rushed for 74 yards in the opener before suffering a game-ending head injury after a slide. Upon return, he excelled as a scrambler with 119 yards against Colorado State. His passing game was solid against Toledo, and he’s advanced enough in both skill sets to fit the definition of a true dual threat quarterback.
Koback is 22nd in the FBS in rushing yards, despite only playing four games in five weeks. The sophomore’s finest three hours were in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, against the Colorado State defense. Koback ran for three touchdowns in a single quarter, boosting the Rockets past the Rams with a career-best 228 yards. Toledo elevated the production of a veteran back, who can provide a degree of power with an aggressive running style. That halfback is junior Shakif Seymour, who accumulated 114 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns last week, clinching the BYU game with his 2-yard plunge.
Western Michigan’s run game is on par with Toledo’s, thanks to the dominance of senior running back LeVante Bellamy. Bellamy was off to a slow start in 2019, but he’s bounced back with 462 rushing yards and six touchdowns in his last three outings. The fast veteran runner is tied with Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor for seventh in the nation in yards, and he’s tied with Koback at 11th in total rushing touchdowns. He recovered from an injury at Syracuse to post over 100 yards on rival Central Michigan last Saturday and hopes to continue his century-streak at Toledo. Bellamy doesn’t attack with as much power as Koback and Seymour, but there aren’t too many running backs in college football that could catch him in a footrace.
Western Michigan has tested the air more often than Toledo this season in a Jon Wassink-led offense. With a collarbone injury behind him, Wassink burst onto the scene in 2019 with five passing touchdowns in 386 yards in his first game. He’s been solid since, posting over 240 yards and a touchdown each week — checking in as the nation’s seventh-best in the yards category.
Wassink’s top receiver this year has been his tight end, a former wide receiver. Ricci is making noise in the Mackey Award conversation with 23 receptions, 350 receiving yards, and five touchdowns — all highs among tight ends. The reliable tight end runs strong routes and manages to break tackles with strength, which could be a challenging matchup for the Toledo defense this weekend. Outside of Ricci, wide receiver Skyy Moore has progressed as one of the top targets for Wassink with 18 receptions and 245 yards. Head coach Tim Lester likes to take shots down the field, so expect Moore to frequent post and streak patterns at the Glass Bowl.
For Toledo, the duo of Bryce Mitchell and Danzel McKinley-Lewis share the team lead with 11 receptions. Both receivers had strong performances against BYU, creating openings near the sidelines to progress the Rockets’ scoring drives. Like Lester, Jason Candle is not afraid of calling long shots. Mitchell averages 22.4 per catch and McKinley-Lewis averages 19.7, so expect Guadagni to sling some deep to his starting receivers.
Western Michigan and Toledo are contenders in the MAC seemingly every season, but that contention is often based on what the teams offer offensively. Neither the Broncos nor Rockets consistently control games with defensive stops, similar to fellow MAC West power Northern Illinois.
The Broncos have fluctuated greatly in performance. At their lowest, they’ve allowed 50 pieces to Michigan State and Syracuse while yielding over 500 yards of offense in the process. At their best, they held Georgia State to 10 points and Central Michigan to 15 while forcing three turnovers in each matchup. The latter two opponents don’t present the same challenge as Michigan State and Syracuse, but Toledo’s offense is just as dangerous — if not more — than that of the ranked Spartans or the Orange.
Because of the high variability in defensive performance based on the opponent, the Broncos fare as an average team in categories such as rushing yards allowed and passing yards allowed per game.
Stopping the run will be the key to this matchup for both teams. Western Michigan presents middle linebacker Treshaun Hayward, who built on his breakout start with another fantastic showing against Central Michigan. Hayward produced a team-high 11 tackles, marking the fourth consecutive game of recording 10 or more stops. He has three tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, and a fumble recovery to add to it, and he’ll be tasked with bringing down Koback and Seymour.
To counter Bellamy, Toledo presents middle linebacker Jordan Fisher and strong safety Saeed Holt, the team’s top two tacklers. Fisher has amassed 34 tackles in 2019, while Holt ranks first among Rockets with five tackles for loss. The two contributed greatly to Toledo’s effort in stopping BYU’s run game after a rough week in Fort Collins, and Bellamy — looking to become the second 200-yard rusher on Toledo’s defense after Colorado State’s Marvin Kinsey Jr. — will serve as a great challenge to the defense as a whole.
What bolstered the Rockets’ defense last week was the secondary. Cornerback Samuel Womack introduced himself to the BYU receivers by breaking up two passes in the end zone and one on a pivotal fourth down in the final five minutes of the afternoon. Free safety Kahlil Robinson then picked off a pass in crunch time and ran it 40 yards to the 2-yard line. By forcing turnovers and repeatedly winning 1-on-1 coverage, Toledo’s secondary looked dangerous last week and the Rockets hope that success prolongs another week at the Glass Bowl.
Time and Date: Saturday, October 5 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Location: Glass Bowl — Toledo, OH
Spread: Toledo (-1.5)
ESPN FPI: Toledo has 58.1% chance to win
All-time series: Toledo leads, 43-30
Last meeting: Toledo 51, Western Michigan 24 — October 25, 2018
Toledo stormed into Kalamazoo and left out with a dominant win to improve to 4-4 on a Thursday night last October. Wassink suffered his season-ending injury on Western Michigan’s first drive of the game, forcing Kaleb Eleby to take over the starting duties. Toledo’s two quarterbacks, Guadagni and Eli Peters, combined for five touchdown passes while Koback added 99 on the ground. The Broncos were within six points at halftime but three-straight Toledo touchdowns to kick off the third quarter virtually ended the game, resulting in a 27-point Rocket domination.
Both teams’ offenses will prevail over the defenses more often than not. This has all the makings of a classic shootout, with Wassink and Guadagni using their cannon arms to lead the passing game and Bellamy and Koback each surpassing the 100-yard mark on the ground.
Toledo’s defense struggled against Colorado State for a quarter but the unit has shown much more consistency than the Broncos’ defense. The Rockets will create several more stops, and Western Michigan won’t have a final answer for the three-headed rushing monster of Guadagni, Koback, and Seymour. The Broncos will score around 40 with a high-powered offense, however.
Prediction: Toledo 48, Western Michigan 40