Time and Date: Wednesday, November 11 at 8:00 p.m. ET
Location: Waldo Stadium — Kalamazoo, MI
Spread: Western Michigan (-2.5)
ESPN FPI: Western Michigan has 69.6% chance to win
All-time series: Toledo leads, 44-30
Last meeting: Toledo 31, Western Michigan 24 — October 5, 2019
Current streak: Toledo, 3 (2017-19)
It’s shaping up to be the best showdown of midweek MACtion’s second slate. This matchup in Kalamazoo may serve as a key tiebreaker in a tight MAC West race, so it’s safe to say there are massive conference title implications in this one even though it’s early in the season. Western Michigan and Toledo dominated on both sides of the ball in their openers. The Broncos left Akron with a 58-13 victory while the Rockets obliterated their hated rival in Bowling Green to the tune of 38-3. After dispatching the MAC’s two worst teams from a year ago, both teams await their first worthy challenger of 2020.
In terms of winning percentage, these are the two most successful MAC programs of the College Football Playoff era, and their meeting at Waldo Stadium earns a well-deserved broadcast on ESPN’s flagship network Wednesday night.
Western Michigan Broncos outlook
Western Michigan took care of business in the MAC’s opening week, as expected. The Broncos destroyed Akron on the road, 58-13, and shut the Zips out of the end zone in the second half.
One clear takeaway from Western Michigan’s first data point is that the Broncos have the best receiving corps in the MAC. Wide receiver, turned cornerback, turned wide receiver again, D’Wayne Eskridge is no stranger to change during his long tenure in Kalamazoo. The 5th-year senior triumphantly returned from a season-ending collarbone injury in 2019 to lead the unit with 114 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Jaylen Hall added a 68-yard touchdown, and the Broncos’ top receiver from 2019, Skyy Moore, caught three passes for 33 yards. The best attribute of Western Michigan’s loaded receiving group is speed. Eskridge and Hall both blazed past defenders on 65+ yard touchdowns at Akron, and their big play potential will hold crucial all season long.
Akron is far and away the easiest team to pick apart in the MAC, and quarterback Kaleb Eleby looked incredibly comfortable in the pocket in his 2020 debut. Eleby is a new starting quarterback but a familiar face, even for Toledo’s veteran defenders. He made his collegiate debut the last time Toledo traveled to Kalamazoo in 2018 and started the final four games that season in relief for Jon Wassink. Still, his performance last Wednesday was his finest of his young career. He connected on 12 of 16 passes, averaged over 21 yards per completion, and fired three touchdowns without an interception. Toledo’s defense will be a step up for the quarterback, but for now, Eleby appears to be the future of the program.
After dominating the run game with a workhorse running back in LeVante Bellamy in 2019, Western Michigan is approaching 2020 in a different manner. The Broncos are splitting their carries between sophomore Sean Tyler, Nevada transfer Jaxson Kincaide, and Michigan State transfer La’Darius Jefferson. Each halfback generated one touchdown and averaged six or more yards per carry in Western Michigan’s offensive explosion last Wednesday.
Defensively, Western Michigan started slow, allowing 13 points and three scoring drives on Akron’s opening four possessions. But the Broncos quickly adjusted to hold Akron to zero points in the second half. 2019 MAC Defensive Player of the Year Treshaun Hayward picked up where he left off as a run stopper with a team-high eight tackles. Additionally, outside linebacker A.J. Thomas, who transitioned from safety, starred in his new role with seven tackles, two tackles for loss, and a pick six. Western Michigan averaged 2.5 sacks in 2019 and looked stellar in that department with a trio of sacks on Akron’s hapless offense.
Toledo Rockets outlook
Toledo circled the 2020 Bowling Green matchup on its calendar after a devastating loss last October. Losing to the Falcons as four-touchdown favorites quickly derailed the Rockets’ season and they lost their last three games of 2019 and didn’t receive an invite to a bowl game.
That is all in the past, and the Rockets have moved on to a better version of themselves. They opened 2020 with a blaring statement, annihilating Bowling Green 38-3 at the Glass Bowl. Just like Western Michigan, the Rockets should be content with the performance of both the offense and defense.
Similar to Eleby, Eli Peters earned valuable quarterback experience prior to this season by replacing an injured starter. Despite 16 in-game appearances in 2018 and 2019, Peters is the Rockets’ chief signal caller to start a season for the first time. It was evident he was ready to take on the massive role back in September when he tweeted his disappointment of not being able to play his senior season. Peters channeled out that frustration on the Bowling Green defense, firing a career-high four touchdown passes in the first half of one of the most accurate showings of his Toledo tenure.
In addition to lighting up the scoreboard from the pocket, Peters scrambled 67 yards and proved to be a viable running threat defenses must contain. He adds to an already loaded Toledo rushing attack headlined by the running back duo of Bryant Koback and Shakif Seymour. Koback (two 220+ yard games in 2019) is usually the primary ball carrier, but last Wednesday was Seymour’s night to shine. Seymour, who usually runs with the truck stick on full throttle, hammered Bowling Green’s defense with 93 rushing yards and a touchdown on 13 carries.
Koback contributed 74 yards and he played multi-dimensional football as the team’s receptions leader. The All-MAC halfback finished second on the team in receiving yards with 50, one behind Toledo’s emerging playmaker from the wide receiver position, Bryce Mitchell. Mitchell appears to be the No. 1 receiver going forward, but Peters had no problem spreading the wealth in his season debut. Five different players accumulated three receptions and four different Rockets caught a touchdown strike from Peters.
While Toledo’s offense finally reverted to what we saw for much of the Jason Candle era, the defense was equally impressive, if not more, in the Battle of I-75 Rivalry. Bowling Green was prohibited from entering the end zone entirely, and Falcons quarterback Matt McDonald completed eight passes on 30 attempts, throwing two interceptions to the Toledo defense. McDonald faced a lot of pressure from the pass rush, but the Rockets surprisingly failed to record a single sack. However, their pass defense was exceptional with seven breakups. Cornerback Samuel Womack, second in the FBS in pass breakups a year ago, returned to his typical form by contributing three in the victory.
Matchups to watch
D’Wayne Eskridge vs. Samuel Womack: Eskridge started four games at cornerback for Western Michigan last year, so the knowledge he acquired from playing the position can be applied to beat opposing corners one-on-one. The senior was no match for Akron’s secondary last week, and he burned the Zips for 114 yards and two touchdowns. This week, Eskridge battles Womack, who has the best hands of any cornerback in the conference. Womack broke up three passes in a win over Western Michigan a year ago, and he’ll have must-watch battles against Eskridge, Moore, and the Broncos’ talented receiving group.
Bryant Koback vs. Treshaun Hayward: The best runner in the MAC West will enter a conflict against the conference’s premier run stopper. Koback won last year’s matchup, rushing for 177 yards against the Broncos defense. Hayward, lining up at outside linebacker, registered 13 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss against Toledo last year, and he’ll be in charge of slowing down Koback before he breaks past the second level of defense. Koback runs best to the outsides, so Toledo may plan carries outside of the tackles while avoiding Hayward’s side of the field.
Kickers vs. uprights: Kickers from six different MAC programs missed an extra point last Wednesday. Toledo and Western Michigan were both among those affected by the rampant occurrence. Some of the kicking struggles were the result of sheer rust, but field goals and extra points aren’t necessarily guaranteed in this one. However, Western Michigan kicker Thiago Kapps managed to outweigh a missed extra point with a career-long 48-yard field goal a week ago. Even though their kicking game is inconsistent, the Broncos know Kapps is capable from distance if the game comes down to a rangy field goal.
Western Michigan and Toledo manhandled Akron and Bowling Green, respectively. Not much can be learned from playing the MAC’s doormats, but the Broncos and Rockets appear to fit the mold of conference contenders.
This matchup in Kalamazoo feels like a toss-up. Both programs’ familiar backup quarterback from the past two seasons is now operating as the starter. Both teams have their fair share of effective skill position players returning, with Western Michigan showcasing a horde of talented receivers and Toledo exhibiting a powerful two-back rushing attack. The defenses also showed up in full force last Wednesday and wreaked havoc in their opening matchups.
We don’t have enough data points on these teams, but this one is destined to come down to the final five minutes. Take your pick, but Jason Candle and Toledo have never lost to Tim Lester’s Western Michigan. I’ll pick the Rockets for the fourth year in a row.
Prediction: Toledo 35, Western Michigan 31