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Five Things Learned: Toledo 31, Western Michigan 24

Was this a battle between the best two MAC teams?

Ball State v Toledo Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Toledo (4-1, 1-0 MAC) continued to roll, winning its fourth straight when Western Michigan (3-3, 1-1 MAC) visited the Glass Bowl this past weekend. For the third consecutive season, the Rockets defeated the Broncos in a battle between the conference’s winningest teams of the College Football Playoff era.

Here are takeaway’s from Toledo’s down-to-the-wire, 31-24 victory.

Toledo is the best team in the MAC

This was a common belief heading into the matchup, but now it’s a certainty. Toledo still retains much of the offensive firepower from the 2018 team — which finished 7-6 — but the Rockets now are stronger on the defensive side and it’s shown.

For the third consecutive game, the defense was called upon to stop the opposing offense from scoring a touchdown on the final possession, and the Toledo defense perfected the assignment once again. Strong safety Saeed Holt continued his breakout season with a 12-yard sack when Western Michigan was knocking on the Rockets’ door at the 12-yard line. The sack forced the Broncos in a tough scoring position and the Toledo defense held firm.

One week prior, free safety Kahlil Robinson picked off a BYU pass in the final minute. Two weeks ago, the defense tackled a Colorado State receiver on the 2-yard line to prevent a game-winning touchdown reception. In all seven wins last season, Toledo’s offense scored 45 or more, but this year, the defense’s improvements — especially within the secondary — take great pressure off the offense. And as a result, Toledo is more balanced and the frontrunner in the MAC.

Western Michigan is the second best team in the MAC

Western Michigan is 3-3, but the Broncos refused to go down without a fight on the road in Toledo.

They have the third-ranked quarterback in FBS passing yards. Jon Wassink is averaging about 295 yards per game and is less than 230 yards away from setting a single-season best. He is arguably the best quarterback in the MAC, averaging 8.5 yards per attempt and firing 12 touchdown passes this season. The loaded offense also features one of the best running backs in the country in LeVante Bellamy, whose 629 rushing yards are the sixth-best in the FBS. The Broncos have a strong offensive line led by center Luke Juriga and guard Mike Caliendo, and they have an additional weapon at the tight end. Giovanni Ricci caught another touchdown pass Saturday and continues to lead all tight ends in the nation in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns.

The Broncos’ defense is still a work in progress, but they have shown major strides since the collapse at Syracuse. They only allowed seven second half points and forced two turnovers, allowing the offense quality opportunities at stringing together a comeback. When the game finished, Western Michigan was just a hair behind Toledo in the Glass Bowl, proving they belong just behind them in the conference rankings — especially when considering what Central Michigan did to Eastern Michigan in Week 6 and the rough starts to the season by Ohio and Northern Illinois.

Broncos needed to get Bellamy going earlier

Over half of Bellamy’s 70 rushing yards were produced on a 39-yard touchdown sprint with under eight minutes remaining in the contest.

Bellamy struggled in the early going, but the senior running back’s big-play potential is too great to pass up. He only received two handoffs in the second quarter which featured 19 plays. During that quarter, Western Michigan was shut out 10-0 by the Rockets.

In the 22 offensive snaps in the third quarter, Bellamy was fed three times, earning 11 yards on the limited sample size. His next carry was his final carry of the afternoon, the 39-yard touchdown run. Western Michigan not getting full utilization out of its most talented offensive star came back to bite them in the end with the 7-point loss. Considering Bellamy was fresh off a 3-game, 462-yard stretch, the running back likely wouldn’t have struggled for too much longer against a Toledo defense which allowed Colorado State running back Marvin Kinsey to manage 246 yards. When Western Michigan finally resorted to using him in the middle of the fourth quarter, it worked but it was valuable production that could have happened sooner.

Toledo’s secondary continues to surge after BYU game

Look up Toledo’s passing defense stats, and you’ll notice the Rockets are the 11th-worst team in the country in yards allowed per game. But sometimes stats don't tell the whole story. The only teams’ secondaries which have been tested more times per game than Toledo are those of Wyoming and Arizona.

Toledo frequently faces challengers, but the Rockets often prevail. Cornerback Samuel Womack broke up three passes of great magnitude in the Toledo game — two would-be touchdowns and one fourth quarter 4th down curl route. He followed that up by breaking up another three and contributing four solo tackles, making solid stops in the open field.

Free safety Kahlil Robinson picked off a pass for the second-straight week. However, he fumbled on the runback, setting Western Michigan up with new life. No points were scored by the Broncos after the double-turnover, but once again, Robinson ended up in the right place in zone coverage and reaped the benefits.

Lastly, Saeed Holt continued his remarkable campaign with a team-high 12 tackles from a strong safety/outside linebacker hybrid position. Holt sacked Wassink 1.5 times, giving him 6.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks on the season.

The Rockets’ secondary is full of playmakers and their versatile skillsets allowed Toledo’s defense to come up with crucial stops and hold a powerful Western Michigan offense to just three touchdowns.

Western Michigan’s road to Detroit looks bleak

There’s hope for Western Michigan. The Broncos played an excellent defensive second half on the road and nearly generated enough offense in the end to tie up a talented Toledo team. If the team’s health sustains, a 5-1 or 4-2 finish seems highly likely to end the season for Tim Lester’s team.

The problem? Western Michigan isn’t booking a ticket to Detroit for the first time of the Lester era unless the Broncos win out and Toledo loses two MAC games, due to the Rockets’ tiebreaker clinched last Saturday. The Rockets’ remaining road games are at Bowling Green (1-4), Ball State (2-3), Buffalo (2-4), and Central Michigan (3-3). Toledo receives visits from Eastern Michigan (3-2), Kent State (2-3), and Northern Illinois (1-4). The Broncos demand the Rockets fall in two of those matchups, but given Toledo’s recent level of play, that seems highly unlikely to happen — especially coinciding with a 6-0 Western Michigan finish.

But in the words of legendary NFL Primetime host Chris Berman, “That’s why they play the games.”