The Toledo Rockets dropped their opener to the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington. Despite jumping out to a 14-7 lead, the Wildcats smothered Toledo in the second half to secure a 38-24 win. Here’s what we learned from Toledo’s first game of the 2019 season:
Mitch Guadagni remains a valuable running threat
Senior quarterback Mitchell Guadagni was on the field for the first time since his season-ending injury against Western Michigan last October. And for the most part, he looked like his old 2018 self. Guadagni adds an extra offensive weapon to Toledo’s offense with his scrambling ability, and Kentucky struggled to stop the senior on the ground throughout the afternoon.
Guadagni raced past the Wildcat defense for a 17-yard carry on a key 3rd-and-long conversion in the second quarter. Two plays later, he sprinted around the edge, untouched, for a 21-yard rushing touchdown. On 14 rushing attempts (which included two sacks), Guadagni led the Rockets in rushing yards with 73.
However, Guadagni slid at the end of a 19-yard run in the third quarter and was on the receiving end of a targeting foul. Guadagni, who suffered a concussion last season against Fresno State, left the game with another apparent concussion, leaving Carter Bradley to finish the game at quarterback.
Without Diontae and Cody, passing game off to a slow start
Toledo benefitted from having one of the country’s best receiving corps the last two seasons. But Diontae Johnson and Cody Thompson are gone from Toledo, currently in pursuit of their NFL dreams. Even the Rockets’ third receiver from 2018, Jon’Vea Johnson, graduated, leaving behind a combined 2,068 receiving yards and 27 touchdowns of production between the trio.
That leaves a more inexperienced group of Danzel McKinley-Lewis, Bryce Mitchell, and Desmond Phillips to lead the receivers. Outside of McKinley-Lewis’ 39-yard catch on the opening drive, Toledo didn’t thrive much in the passing game. The 39-yard bomb nearly accounted for a quarter of the Rockets’ total passing offense in Lexington.
With Guadagni out, Bradley completed just 4-of-13 passes and threw the only interception for Toledo in the afternoon. Overall, the two quarterbacks completed 11-of-25 attempts, averaging 6.6 yards per throw.
The lack of starting experience in the receiving unit may cause Toledo to go through some growing pains in the passing game, but if there’s one thing head coach Jason Candle excels at, it’s creating elite offensive talent. Toledo has finished in the top 20 in scoring offense each year under the fourth-year head coach.
Pass blocking struggles hampered Toledo offense
Toledo allowed four sacks, Kentucky recorded a total of seven tackles for loss, and in the pocket, Guadagni and Bradley looked under constant duress.
The Rockets’ offensive line is clearly suffering from the loss of their glue-guy, center Bryce Harris. Harris, a 2018 Second Team All-MAC lineman, suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first week of August. That leaves the Rockets with less experience on the makeshift offensive line.
However, the run game looked strong at moments. During Bryant Koback’s 5-yard touchdown run and Guadagni’s 21-yard scamper, the offensive line nailed its assignments and let both runners enter the end zone untouched. But pass blocking was a different story Saturday. Especially in the second half, when Bradley was under center, Kentucky’s pressure permeated the Toledo backfield and forced several incompletions and negative plays.
Lack of pressure led to prolific day for Terry Wilson
On the opposite side of the ball, Toledo needed to create more pressure in order to record stops. Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson Jr. had plenty of time in the pocket to ace his throws, and that he did. Wilson completed 19-of-26 passes for 246 yards and two touchdowns, throwing zero interceptions in a dominant outing.
While Toledo managed seven tackles for loss and starred at stopping running back A.J. Rose, pressuring Wilson has a whole different animal. Kentucky’s offense was primarily carried by running back Benny Snell Jr. last season, but Wilson’s comfort in the pocket led to arguably his greatest performance in his 14 collegiate starts.
Nice throw and catch from Terry Wilson to Lynn Bowden in traffic. pic.twitter.com/wa8ZBmcyof— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) August 31, 2019
Jamal Hines was the most disruptive force on the Rockets defense. The defensive end finished with a team-high two tackles for loss and occasionally would burst past the Kentucky line en route to pressuring Wilson.
Guadagni’s health will be a major factor going forward
When Guadagni left the game with an injury, Toledo was positioned on the Kentucky 28-yard line, trailing 24-14 with 5:05 remaining in the third quarter — still a winnable game for the Rockets.
While Toledo’s offense stalled on six consecutive possessions, Guadagni was creating a potential scoring drive when he left following the head injury. The Rockets ended up with a 46-yard field goal to cut the game back to one possession, but the team finished with -1 yards on the remainder of the possession following Guadagni’s injury.
The following four series resulted in three punts and one interception. Toledo evidently missed Guadagni on the offense, and his playmaking on the ground game was required when the passing game struggled in the second half. In 2019, Toledo will go as far as Guadagni takes it, and a lot of that depends on the quarterback’s health. Luckily for the Rockets, they have two weeks in between their first and second games, so Guadagni has time to recover before returning to the Glass Bowl to face Murray State.