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2020 Mid-American Conference Football Season Preview: Toledo Rockets

An injured Toledo team stumbled to the finish line in 2019, not invited to a bowl bid. How do Jason Candle and the Rockets respond?

Toledo v Kentucky Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

December 8, 2019 was an unfortunate day for Toledo Rockets football. For the first time since 2013, the Rockets would not receive an invite to bowl season. Toledo, however, was eligible with a 6-6 record, but the team had virtually zero momentum by the time the regular season finale concluded. All other bowl eligible teams were sent to the postseason. But Rockets track record entering December wasn’t promising. They lost each of their final three games, culminating in a 49-7 rout at Central Michigan on Black Friday.

A promising outlook after a 4-1 start was all ruined in one afternoon at Doyt-Perry Stadium. Facing Bowling Green in the heated Battle of I-75, Toledo senior quarterback Mitchell Guadagni was sacked in the third quarter and suffered a season-ending injury on the play. Toledo’s offense failed to score another point following his injury, and four-touchdown underdog Bowling Green pulled off a stunner in the rivalry for the first time since 2009.

Coaches preach to “never let a bad loss beat you twice”, but Toledo came out flat in Muncie, IN seven days after the letdown in Bowling Green. Ball State stuffed over 580 yards of total offense onto the Rockets’ plate, and held a commanding 38-0 lead at halftime before putting the finishing touches on a 52-14 blowout.

The nightmare at Bowling Green essentially never ended. The Rockets finished the season 2-4 afterward, en route to a 6-6 finish. It was Toledo’s worst season since 2009, but with a wide open MAC West in a shortened 2020 season, the Rockets are primed to reclaim their success from the early years of the Jason Candle era.


What went right in 2019

Koback and Seymour attack

Toledo’s running game is a force to be reckoned with, and both stars of the show are returning. Bryant Koback is the ultimate heat-check running back in college football. When Koback gets into a rhythm, he’s unstoppable. This was the case when he posted 228 yards and three touchdowns on 19 carries at Colorado State and again several weeks later when bursting for 259 yards and two touchdowns against Eastern Michigan. Koback finished 29th in the country in rushing yards despite playing just 12 games as a sophomore, and he complemented his rushing output with 12 touchdowns and an average of 6.1 yards per carry.

Toledo’s offense under Jason Candle has never been afraid to spread the wealth in the backfield. Ever since 2013 when Candle was the program’s offense coordinator, the Rockets’ second-leading rusher has eclipsed 560 rushing yards. The 2019 season was no exception when power back Shakif Seymour fought his way for 741 yards and five touchdowns. Seymour enjoyed a dominant three-game stretch late in the season with 94, 175, and 133 rushing yards in consecutive weeks. As a bruiser not afraid of contact, he is a capable goal line threat and a strong candidate to lead Toledo in touchdowns going into 2020 — even with Koback functioning as the primary starter in the backfield.

Playmaking from the secondary

On Sept. 21, 2019, Toledo stopped not one, but two completed Hail Mary passes short of the goal line. The Rockets’ secondary stuffed Colorado State short of the end zone before halftime and reiterated the act at the end of the fourth quarter in order to seal a 41-35 victory in Fort Collins. One week later, Toledo’s defensive backs stepped up in crunch time again. Free safety Kahlil Robinson picked off BYU quarterback Zach Wilson and returned the interception 40 yards to set the offense up for the victory. One play later with a minute remaining, Seymour scored a 5-yard rushing touchdown to break the tie, and Toledo pulled off the upset over BYU. Lastly, in Toledo’s final win of the season on Nov. 5, Robinson stuffed Kent State quarterback Dustin Crum inches short of the goal line on a game-tying 2-point attempt.

The Rockets secondary — whether it was wrapping up for impressive tackles, batting down passes, or coming up with pivotal interceptions — frequently came up with home run plays in their six wins. Cornerback Samuel Womack particularly stood out as the team’s lead ballhawk. Womack finished first in the MAC and fourth in the FBS in pass breakups, striking down 15 in 2019.


What went wrong in 2019

Injuries

Injuries were devastating. The season started with a feeling of unsettlement when starting center Bryce Harris suffered a knee injury one month prior to the season opener. Starting quarterback Mitchell Guadagni also experienced a season-ending injury in the sixth game of the year. Then, backup quarterback Eli Peters suffered a similar fate in the penultimate game versus Buffalo and missed the season finale at Central Michigan.

The absences weren’t just limited to injuries. Defensive end Terrance Taylor was suspended after a brutal targeting foul against Northern Illinois quarterback Ross Bowers. To sum it up, the month of November was a catastrophe for Toledo, and ultimately, the team felt too beat up to succeed in the bowl season, ending the Rockets’ 5-year streak of bowling.

Losing Guadagni after a 4-2 start especially hurt because his mobility was a vital component of Toledo’s offense. Toledo lost him in 2018 with a midseason shoulder injury and again due to injury in 2019, so his absences took a major toll on the Rockets’ success over the past two years. Toledo has replaced him twice before with Eli Peters, and Peters will likely enter 2020 as the full-time starter for the first time in his Rocket career.

Stopping the run

When Toledo limited its opponent to fewer than 230 rushing yards, the Rockets finished 5-1. The Rockets, however, fared 1-5 in contests when yielding over 230 rushing yards to opponents. Toledo checked in at 121st in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game (218.6), and only Bowling Green was worse in that department in the MAC.

Missed tackles plagued the Rockets throughout the 2019 season, especially in lackadaisical performances against Ball State (376 rushing yards, 4 rushing TDs allowed) and Buffalo (331 rushing yards, 6 rushing TDs allowed). Toledo also struggled with ripping the ball from defenders’ hands, and only Kansas ranked lower than the Rockets in fumbles recovered. While Toledo usually exhibits a juggernaut of an offense, the team’s rushing defense has been a below-average unit for the entirety of the Jason Candle — but last year’s inability to control the line of scrimmage on defense was the Achilles heel for the program.


Faces to watch in 2020

Toledo was one of two MAC West teams held out of bowl season in 2019, along with fellow longtime conference championship contender Northern Illinois. But the Rockets’ 6-6 record and the Huskies’ 5-7 mark weren’t too far off from MAC West champion Central Michigan’s 8-6 result. In other words, Toledo is a contending member of the most wide open division in college football and all six teams can realistically win it in 2020.

Last season started out dreary by losing Bryce Harris for the season, but the 2018 Second Team All-MAC center is back to improve the offensive line. He’ll snap to a familiar quarterback as well with Eli Peters (10 combined starts in 2018 and 2019) returning to the lineup. Even with fewer in-game repetitions in 2019 when compared to 2018, last year’s version of Peters looked more poised and confident. His completion percentage improved from 55 to 59 percent, and he increased his yards per attempt from 6.9 to 7.9. Even though Toledo relies on Peters to make tougher, downfield throws, another spike in Peters’ accuracy could work wonders for this Toledo offense.

The rushing game will be one of the best in the MAC and should be of little concern for Rockets fans. Bryant Koback and Shakif Seymour hope to lead the Rockets’ rushing game to the top quartile of the FBS for the fourth-straight season, a goal which is very feasible.

One thing Toledo’s offense has been in need of since the departures of Cody Thompson and Diontae Johnson is a playmaking wide receiver. A viable candidate to mold into that role is senior Bryce Mitchell. After rarely seeing game action in his first two years as a Rocket, Mitchell emerged as Toledo’s premier downfield threat in 2019. He caught 35 passes and averaged 19.4 yards per reception, ranking first on the roster in receiving yards and touchdowns. Toledo showcases experienced senior talent alongside Mitchell in the receiving group. Sixth-year senior Danzel McKinley-Lewis, the final remnant of the Matt Campbell era, and tight end Drew Rosi add 101 combined receptions to a talented veteran offense in 2020.

Samuel Womack is a vital contributor to Toledo’s defense, and the Rockets’ man coverage should benefit greatly from Womack’s presence. His knack for reading quarterbacks’ eyes and locating the destination of the pass, combined with his ability to quickly react with his hands, makes him a top-tier MAC cornerback. In addition to his 15 pass breakups in his breakout 2019 campaign, Womack notched 59 tackles, two interceptions, and forced a fumble. Speaking of tacklers from the secondary, safety/outside linebacker hybrid Saeed Holt will impose his will as Toledo’s most forceful tackler this season. Holt invaded backfields for 11 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in 2019, and his 74 total tackles are second among returning players. First in that category would be returning strong safety Tycen Anderson, who excelled in zone coverage with five pass deflections a season ago.

One aspect of the defense in which Toledo demands improvement is the pass rush. Defensive end Terrance Taylor was the only member of the front seven to produce more than two sacks in 2019, and he registered three. Along with Taylor, the Rockets expect a breakthrough from junior defensive end Jamal Hines as a pass rusher. A two-year starter, Hines produced 17.5 tackles for loss as the defensive line’s anchor in stopping the run. Now, he just needs to commit several knockout moves to memory to blow past offensive linemen and increase his sack total (3.5 career sacks in two seasons).


Toledo schedule

  • Wed, Nov. 4: Bowling Green at Toledo
  • Wed, Nov. 11: Toledo at Western Michigan
  • Wed, Nov. 18: Toledo at Eastern Michigan
  • Sat, Nov. 28: Ball State at Toledo
  • Sat, Dec. 5: Toledo at Northern Illinois
  • Sat, Dec. 12: Central Michigan at Toledo
  • Fri, Dec. 18: MAC Championship Game at Ford Field in Detroit, MI

Season prediction

Toledo opens the season at home against Bowling Green. Even though the Falcons have been MAC cellar dwellers since 2016, this game is circled on Toledo’s calendar every year. This year, it’s circled three times, highlighted, and surrounded by red exclamation points.

The Rockets will make it a priority to snatch the Battle of I-75 Trophy back to campus and start 2020 with a 1-0 record. Toledo must get off on the right footing because the next two matchups on the calendar are road games against teams of similar stature (Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan), when considering the 2019 standings. But every MAC West game is very winnable, but also, every MAC West game is a potential loss given the extreme level of parity exuded in the division.

Still, Toledo has the best offensive player in the entire MAC West in running back Bryant Koback. The team has a quarterback with 10 starts under his belt, two veteran receivers returning, the best center in the conference, and plenty of experience on the defensive line and secondary.

When predicting the result of 2020 with an assumption of zero postponements and cancelations, Toledo wins the MAC West at 4-2 in the regular season thanks to winning a critical tiebreaker game. The Rockets definitely have the talent to return to the MAC Championship Game for the first time since 2017, but they must improve their execution. However, upon reaching Detroit, the MAC East opponent will win. Thus, Toledo’s bowl matchup will determine if the Rockets can finish above .500 or fall to 4-4. If invited to the postseason, the Rockets look to snap a 3-game bowl losing streak and attain the program’s first postseason victory since 2015.