The Toledo Rockets entered their Week 8 matchup with Western Michigan in dire need of a victory. After losing two-straight conference games, the Rockets (4-4, 2-2 MAC) were running out of time to get back on track. They needed to deliver a solid performance if they wanted to have any chance of getting back to a bowl game.
Deliver they did.
The Rockets defense turned in perhaps their finest performance of the season, shutting down the high-powered Western Michigan offense in a 34-15 victory.
The Rockets opened the scoring in the first quarter after the offense got an assist from the special teams unit. After the defense forced a Western Michigan three-and-out, Devin Maddox fielded a punt near midfield and returned the ball to the Broncos 16-yard line. The Rockets offense was unable to pick up a first down, but Toledo was already in field goal range and Thomas Cluckey was able to convert the 29-yard field goal to give the Rockets a 3-0 lead.
Both offenses struggled to find their footing early, and continued to trade punts as the end of the first quarter approached. The Rockets were the first team to put a sustained drive together, going 42 yards in ten plays before stalling out once they reached the Broncos red zone. After failing to convert a third-and-nine at the WMU 15, Cluckey converted his second field goal of the game to give Toledo a 6-0 lead.
After the ensuing kickoff, the Western Michigan offense finally seemed to find their rhythm. Starting at their own 25 yard line, Kaleb Eleby led the Broncos down the field on the back of two long completions to Skyy Moore and Jalen Hall. The Broncos found themselves inside the Rockets red zone for the first time, but weren’t able to find the end zone. After two false start penalties in a span of three plays, the Broncos were forced to settle for a field goal. Nick Mihalich’s 26 yard attempt sailed down the middle to make it 6-3 Toledo.
The Rockets response was quick and emphatic, though the Broncos defense did give them a bit of help. Starting at their own 25-yard line, Toledo opened up the drive with a 22-yard run from Micah Kelly. Western Michigan defensive lineman Brandon Fiske was called for a personal foul on the play, and all of a sudden the Rockets found themselves at the Broncos 28 yard line. On the next play, Dequan Finn found Bryce Mitchell for a 28-yard TD, and the Rockets were up 13-3.
The Broncos didn’t waste any time responding. After starting on their own 17-yard line, Eleby and company went right back to work. La’Darius Jefferson picked up 16 yards on two carries to open the drive, and then Eleby found Skyy Moore on back to back plays. After four plays, Western Michigan moved from their own 17 to the Rockets 39. After moving inside the Rockets red zone, the Broncos faced third-and-two at the Toledo 14. Eleby scrambled 14 yards for the score, though Nick Mihalich missed the PAT. The Broncos were hanging around, down 13-9 with 3:20 left in the first half.
After a quick three-and-out from the Rockets , the Western Michigan offense picked up right where they left off. After the Toledo punt, the Broncos started out their ensuing drive at their own 44 yard line with 2:01 left in the first half. WMU would need only three plays to score, with Eleby finding Moore on the second play of the drive to get the Broncos down to the Rockets four yard line. Sean Tyler capped the drive on the very next snap, taking the hand off and finding the end zone. Nick Mihalich missed the PAT once again, but the Broncos suddenly had momentum. After failing to produce almost anything throughout the first half, the WMU offense had just scored two touchdowns in less than two minutes. Just like that, the Broncos were up 15-13.
Rockets kicker Thomas Cluckey missed a 50-yard field goal as time expired in the first half, ensuring that 15-13 would hold up as the score going into the locker room.
The Broncos had all of the momentum coming out of the break, and they were set to receive the second half kickoff. With a chance to extend their lead, the Western offense failed to get anything going. After picking up two first downs (one courtesy of a pass interference call) the Broncos were forced to punt.
The ensuing drive is when the Rockets started to take control of the game. Starting on their own 20-yard line, Toledo marched 80 yards in only nine plays to reclaim momentum. After a 24-yard run by Bryant Koback got the Rockets down to the Broncos 30, the drive seemed like it had stalled. After three unsuccessful plays, Toledo was faced with a fourth-and-14 at the Broncos 34. Instead of trotting on for a punt, Jason Candle opted to be aggressive and go for it. The dice roll paid off, and Dequan Finn found WR Danzel McKinley-Lewis down the left sideline for a score. Just like that, the Rockets were back on top, 20-15.
The following drive, the Toledo defense delivered the back breaker. On the Broncos third play of the possession, they faced third-and-two at their own 33-yard line. Eleby handed the ball of to RB Sean Tyler off the left hand side, and the usually dependable Tyler fumbled. Toledo safety Zachary Ford scooped up the loose ball and returned it for six points, and all of a sudden the Rockets were up 27-15. The momentum had shifted to the Toledo sideline, and it would not shift back.
Desperate to get back into the game, the Broncos opted to go for it on fourth-and-one from their own 46-yard line on their next possession. La’Darius Jefferson was stuffed at the line of scrimmage, and the Rockets offense returned to the field.
Given the short field, the Rockets offense capitalized and put the game out of reach. After a heavy dose of Bryant Koback got the Toledo into the Broncos red zone, Micah Kelly capped the drive with a three yard score to give us our final margin, 34-15.
It cannot be understated enough, this was a fantastic performance by the Toledo defense. This is a Western Michigan offense that produced 648 points and 64 points against Kent State last week. By holding this unit to 398 yards and 15 points, the Rockets defense proved why they are the best unit in the conference. Western Michigan QB Kaleb Eleby completed barely half of his passes, going 15-of-29 for 232 yards. The Broncos managed 166 rushing yards on 40 carries, which is respectable. The 4.2 yards per carry average is one that the Rockets will live with.
The real highlight here is the fact that the Rockets were able to force the Broncos into two turnovers, after WMU had given the ball away only five times through their first seven games.
Offensively, Toledo still has a lot to figure out. QB Dequan Finn only completed eight of his 24 passes, though he did throw two touchdowns. Bryant Koback picked up 100 yards rushing on his 17 carries, and the Rockets compiled 192 yards rushing as a team.
This was a must win game for Toledo, and they played like it. This is an offense which is still a work in progress. They were only able to produce 330 yards despite the victory, and two of their four scoring drives were set up by short fields. Regardless, this defense will keep Toledo in every game the rest of the way. With five teams tied at 2-2 in the West, the Rockets are still very much in the thick of things.
For Western Michigan, this is the second disappointing performance in the last three weeks. Two weeks ago against Ball State, four turnovers and big plays on defense proved to be the Broncos downfall. The two turnovers today did not help their cause, and having losses versus division rivals Ball State and now Toledo is not ideal. The Broncos will need a bit of help if they want to get to Ford Field, but this team has the talent to do it.
Both squads will be in action next week as we move into November and shift to midweek games. Western will return home on Wednesday, Nov. 3 to take on heated rival Central Michigan. Kickoff is set for 7:00 p.m. Eastern at Waldo Stadium. The Rockets will continue their current homestand, as Chris Creighton and the Eastern Michigan Eagles will travel to Toledo on Tuesday, Nov. 2. Kickoff time at the Glass Bowl has yet to be determined.