Toledo and Western Michigan met at the Glass Bowl on Saturday in a crucial match up in the muddled MAC West. It was a must-win game for the Rockets, and they played like it, coming away with a crucial 34-15 victory. Both teams now sit at 2-2 in the MAC, two games behind Northern Illinois for the West division lead. Both squads are still in the thick of things, and both can still make it to Ford Field if they get a little help. Let’s take a look at what we learned on Saturday and where both teams stand moving forward.
Toledo has the best defense in the MAC
The Rockets defense faced a tall task on Saturday, facing a high-powered Western Michigan offense that was coming off of a 64 point, 648 yard outing against Kent State. Toledo’s defense proved to be up to the task.
Vince Kehres’ unit limited Kaleb Eleby and company to 398 yards of total offense, roughly 40 yards below their season average. The Rockets were also able to force two turnovers, one of which was a fumble which was returned for a touchdown. The Broncos normally efficient offense had only given the ball away five times entering the game, and the Rockets aggressive game plan clearly paid off.
Through eight games, the Rockets defense ranks first in the MAC in points per game (18.3), second in both pass defense (180.4 yards per game) and total defense (326.0). That total defense places Toledo 29th in the entire FBS, and the pass defense is ranked 19th. Vince Kehres was brought in prior to the 2020 to address issues on this side of the ball, and he has worked wonders. For a team that is struggling offensively, this unit will give the Rockets a chance in every game they play. Speaking of that…
The Rockets still need to find an offensive identity
The switch at quarterback seems to be complete, as freshman Dequan Finn has now taken every snap under center for Toledo for two straight weeks. Finn is a great athlete, but he still needs to grow into his role as a passer. Against Western Michigan, he completed only eight of his 24 pass attempts, though he did throw two touchdown passes. The second touchdown, to Danzel McKinley-Lewis down the left sideline, was especially impressive and gives you an idea of his potential as a passer. He is completing only 51 percent of his passes thus far this year, though he has thrown five touchdowns without an interception.
Finn is going to continue to develop as a passer. He can most help this offense right now by bringing a dual threat nature to the game, as he has proven to be dangerous in the open field with the ball in his hands. He is the Rockets’ second leading rusher this season, with 351 yards and six scores on 77 carries. Finn and Bryant Koback in the same backfield poses a serious threat to opposing rushing defenses, and it feels as if that duo is something that this Rockets offense can lean on moving forward.
To be sure, the Rockets have some talented pass catchers on this offense as well. Danzel McKinley-Lewis caught his first touchdown of the season on Saturday, and Devin Maddox and Isaiah Winstead have proven to be dependable options on the outside. But as Finn develops, it feels as if establishing the run game is something the Rockets should emphasize moving forward. Right now, the Rockets rank sixth in the MAC in rushing offense, averaging 164.3 yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry. If Toledo wants to compete for the MAC West and get back to a bowl game, I think their offensive game plans moving forward should put more emphasis on the run.
Western Michigan (still) has a kicking problem
We talked about this a few weeks ago after the Broncos close win against Buffalo. Nick Mihalich and Parker Sampson have split kicking duties thus far this year, and the results have been mixed.
Nick Mihalich, the team’s primary punter, took on kicking duties this past weekend. He started off well enough, making a 26-yard field goal early in the second quarter for Western Michigan’s first points of the day. However, later in the quarter, the Broncos scored touchdowns on back to back drives, and Mihalich missed both extra points.
Through eight games, Mihalich and Sampson have combined to make only 25-of-29 extra points for the Broncos. That is good for an 86.2% conversion rate, which ranks last in the MAC. Similarly, the WMU kickers have managed to convert only 9-of-13 field goal attempts, good for only a 69.2% conversion rate. Mihalich and Sampson have combined to go 7-of-7 on attempts under 30 yards. On attempts of 30 yards or more, the duo is only 2-of-6. That is not good. With the race in the MAC West so close, the margin for error going down the stretch is going to be so thin. It feels as if this is an area that might cost the Broncos a crucial win if they can’t get it figured out.
Both of these teams can still win the MAC West
Currently, Northern Illinois sits atop the division at 4-0. Every other team in the West currently sits at 2-2.
The Broncos have one of the most balanced offenses in the conference. The Rockets have proven to have the best defense. The strength of those units will allow both of these teams to stay in the race as we enter November.
Both of these teams have multiple losses within the division, so both will need some help down the stretch. Western Michigan has now lost to both Toledo and Ball State, though they have yet to face NIU. The Broncos travel to DeKalb to take on the Huskies on Nov. 23. If they can win out to that point, they’ll have to hope the Huskies get knocked off at least once prior to that match up.
For Toledo, they now own crucial victories over division rivals Ball State and Western Michigan. The Rockets losses to Central Michigan and Northern Illinois still hurt, but they also own the most manageable schedule over the last month. Eastern Michigan travels to the Glass Bowl this coming week, and then travel to Bowling Green and Ohio before closing the season at home against Akron. The Rockets should be favored in all of those games.
Northern Illinois has a brutal final stretch of the season. After traveling to Kent State this week, the Huskies face Ball State, Buffalo, and Western Michigan to close out the season. NIU has been the best team in the MAC thus far, but a loss or two in the last month will leave the door open for any of the MAC West teams that currently sit 2-2.