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2021 Week 7 Preview: Toledo Rockets @ Central Michigan Chippewas

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Toledo is 3-3 overall and 1-1 in MAC play. So is Central Michigan. It’s separation Saturday in the wild MAC West.

Toledo v Kentucky Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Game Notes

  • Time and Date: Saturday, October 16 at 3:30 p.m. ET
  • Network: CBS Sports Network
  • Location: Kelly/Shorts Stadium — Mount Pleasant, MI
  • Spread: Toledo (-5)
  • ESPN FPI: Toledo has 70.7% chance to win
  • All-time series: Toledo leads, 27-19-3
  • Last meeting: Toledo 24, Central Michigan 23 — December 12, 2020

Setting the scene

Toledo and Central Michigan share the same overall record at 3-3 and the same conference record at 1-1. In fact, five of the six teams in the MAC West are currently 1-1 in league play, so both programs hope to achieve separation this Saturday.

In a matchup headlining two of the MAC’s top halfbacks in Bryant Koback and Lew Nichols, one of these middle of the pack programs will surpass .500, stay afloat in the crowded division race, and take a step closer to bowl eligibility.

Toledo controls this series and sports a 10-1 record over Central Michigan since 2010. Five Chippewa victories from 2005-09 separate two dominant Toledo runs. The Rockets cleared every matchup from 2010-18 and from 1995-04. After starting a new 1-game win streak last December, Toledo aims to start another run of dominance while the Chippewas hope for their second consecutive win in Mount Pleasant.


Toledo Rockets outlook

Toledo’s pursuit of perfection in MAC play came to a sudden halt last weekend in a low-scoring slugfest against Northern Illinois. Despite registering two more touchdowns than the Huskies, the Rockets fell 22-20 on a go-ahead field goal in the closing seconds. That marked Toledo’s second loss of the year when holding the opponent to one touchdown.

In a deviation from the norm of the Jason Candle era, Toledo’s premier unit is the defense for once. The Rockets have not seen one subpar performance from the defense this season, and the team is tied for 19th in the FBS in fewest points allowed. Teams haven’t been able to consistently break Toledo’s secondary, and opposing quarterbacks complete 53.3 percent of passes on the Rockets. Toledo ranks 12th in the nation in fewest passing yards allowed and dominance in man coverage by the cornerbacks is a major reason why.

Samuel Womack was fourth in the FBS in pass breakups two seasons ago, and the senior is putting together another solid season with three deflections, an interception, a fumble recovery in 2021. Chris McDonald, another standout defender, has shown a proclivity for anticipating routes and he leads the team with two interceptions on the season.

NCAA Football: Toledo at Notre Dame
Cornerback Chris McDonald has a team-high two interceptions for Toledo this year, including a pick-six against Notre Dame in Week 2.
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The front seven plays with an aggressive nature which allows them to force and recover fumbles at one of the highest rates in the land. Outside linebackers Dyontae Johnson and Jamal Hines have embodied this physical style, and the two combine for 80 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, and an impressive seven pass breakups at the season’s midway point.

Through six games, Notre Dame is the only team to post more than 22 points on Toledo. It’s evident that second-year defensive coordinator Vince Kehres has done a standup job at refining a unit which allowed the most yards per game in the MAC prior to his takeover. Now, the offense needs to establish similar consistency.

Toledo still maintains a longtime weapon on the unit in Bryant Koback. The junior halfback is no secret to Central Michigan’s defense as he has already amassed a pair of 120-yard games on the Chippewas during his collegiate career. Koback is coming off an incredible performance against Northern Illinois where he broke out for a 40-yard rushing touchdown to go along with a 75-yard touchdown on a halfback screen. He totaled 176 yards on 14 touches, but that was the issue — he only had 14 touches.

The lack of Koback’s reps can be explained, however. One glaring issue for Toledo was it couldn’t keep its offense on the field against Northern Illinois. The Rockets held possession for roughly 19 minutes and fared 1/10 on third downs and 0/3 on fourth downs. More efficient play-calling on critical downs is key to bolstering the Rockets’ offense this week. However, one problem is Toledo faces is frequent down-and-distance situations due to an abundance of yellow flags.

No program in the FBS draws more penalties than the Rockets, which are the only team to collect at least 10 flags per game. Toledo averages nearly 93 penalty yards per game, and the frequent holding calls and pre-snap fouls have been absolutely killer to this team’s offensive momentum. Compare Toledo’s stats to a Central Michigan team that is nearly the nation’s median in penalty yards, and the difference is roughly 39 yards per game.

Halfway through the season, Toledo still runs a multi-quarterback system with no signs of slowing it down. Carter Bradley has started all six games this season, and he normally operates as the primary passer. But last week, Dequan Finn took the majority of passing reps for the first time in 2021. Finn led all three Toledo touchdown drives in the defeat, and he completed 10/17 passes for career-highs in yardage (179) and touchdowns (2).

Finn often strikes with his legs on zone reads, and he already has four rushing scores of 24 yards or greater this season. If Saturday is like every other Toledo game this season, both quarterbacks will alternate every few possessions before Candle eventually settles on the hot hand. One quality trait both quarterbacks display is the intellect to avoid errant passes. Toledo is one of nine teams in the FBS to throw fewer than two picks this year. However, the Rockets don’t test the waters downfield often, so the lack of verticality in the offense is the tradeoff here.


Central Michigan Chippewas outlook

The cardiac Chippewas completed their second fourth quarter comeback of the season last Saturday and improved to 1-1 in the MAC standings after upending Ohio. Central Michigan also overcame a 17-point deficit in the final frame in Week 4 to spoil FIU’s chances at victory, so strong finishes are becoming a theme for Jim McElwain’s team.

However, the FBS teams taken down by Central Michigan combine for a 2-10 record this season, so the Chippewas haven’t been able to tackle competition on Toledo’s level yet. They’ll get their chance Saturday, but two key contributors won’t suit up in this MAC West showdown — wide receiver JaCorey Sullivan and outside linebacker Troy Brown.

Sullivan has two 100-yard games under his belt this season and scored a touchdown in all five outings, but he’ll miss his second consecutive game due to injury. This requires another heroic performance from Central Michigan’s breakout player Dallas Dixon. The Arizona native is 29th in the FBS in receiving yards and tied for 21st in receiving touchdowns. Dixon’s last three weeks have been phenomenal, compiling 19 receptions for 331 yards, and three touchdowns, and he continues to heat up as the year progresses. Dixon lines up alongside two-time All-MAC selection Kalil Pimpleton, so the Chippewas remain top-loaded at receiver even without Sullivan.

Brown, a two-time First Team All-MAC honoree, was sidelined early in the Ohio game after suffering an injury. He ranks third on the team in tackles and serves as one of the Chippewas’ premier run stuffers. Brown’s absence will call for a stellar performance from George Douglas. The starting inside linebacker should see plenty of Bryant Koback runs in this matchup, so he’ll have an opportunity to stifle Toledo’s run game and shatter his season-high in tackles. Douglas has been a nightmare for Toledo’s offense before, totaling eight tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble in the 2020 matchup.

New Mexico Bowl - Central Michigan v San Diego State
In 2020, inside linebacker George Douglas’ best showing of the season transpired in the finale at Toledo.
Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images

Central Michigan boasts one of the better backfield-stopping defenses in the country. Ranking 15th in the FBS with 7.7 TFLs per game, the Chippewas present dangerous tacklers from all levels. On the defensive line, Troy Hairston has recorded six TFLs, three of which were sacks, and Amir Siddiq has 4.5 to his name. Meanwhile, running backs are also seeing heavy doses of free safety Alonzo McCoy, who has 4.5 TFLs on the season. With a slew of talented hitters, it’s no surprise Central Michigan ranks second in the MAC in rushing defense.

The rushing offense has been just as sharp. With Kobe Lewis out for the season, Lew Nichols is taking on the role of the workhorse back and his endeavors have been rather fruitful. Nichols leads all MAC players in rushing yards with 591. Nichols handled 30 carries a week ago and converted those opportunities into a season-high 186 yards. With three 130+ yard displays this year, Toledo’s defense should expect Nichols to be the featured option on this offense.

Central Michigan may have favored the run last week, but that doesn’t mean the Chippewas have an aversion to airing it out. In the MAC opener, quarterback Daniel Richardson launched the ball 41 times for 326 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Richardson has served as the starter in Mount Pleasant since spearheading the comeback over FIU and he likely maintains that role for Saturday. While the strength in Richardson’s rocket arm is no mystery, Central Michigan’s offense can take the next step if his accuracy sharpens. In his four games with 15 or more attempts, Richardson has only surpassed a 54 percent completion rate once. Toledo’s defense tends to rattle quarterbacks’ accuracy numbers, so Richardson must come in to this game razor sharp in order to deliver a home victory.


Prediction

Don’t expect either team to cross 30 points in this matchup. There should be a lot of Bryant Koback and Lew Nichols usage, and of course, both running backs will be met with resistance by these stout front sevens.

This game is shaping up to feature battles over field position, and turnovers may be the defining factor at Kelly/Shorts Stadium this Saturday. Toledo is forcing fumbles at a high rate, and the passing defense is on the money every week. Thus, the Rockets should have the edge on defense in this one, especially when comparing the caliber of the secondaries.

Central Michigan’s secondary played very concerning football in the FIU and Miami (OH) games, so Toledo’s passing numbers could considerably rise this week. The Rockets are deep in the receiving corps and if Central Michigan’s front seven prevails against the run game, Jason Candle’s team should have no problem expanding the offense and finding success through the air this week.

Prediction: Toledo 28, Central Michigan 21