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2021 Bahamas Bowl Preview: Toledo Rockets vs. MTSU Blue Raiders

The seventh-annual battle in the Bahamas features two squads vying for the Prime Minister’s Trophy.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 16 Toledo at Ohio Photo by Graham Stokes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Game Notes

  • Time and Date: Friday December 17th, at 12 noon ET
  • Network: ESPN
  • Location: Thomas A. Robinson National Stadium, in Nassau, Bahamas
  • Weather: Mostly Sunny, 81 degrees, winds E at 16 MPH per Weather.com
  • Line: Toledo (-10) according to ESPN Pick Center

Bowl History

Toledo

  • All-Time Bowl Record is 10-8.
  • Last Bowl: 2018 Bahamas Bowl, resulted in 35-32 loss to the FIU Panthers

Middle Tennessee

  • All-Time Bowl Record is 4-8.
  • Last Bowl: 2018 R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, resulted in 45-13 loss to the Appalachian State Mountaineers

Season Summary

The Rockets (7-5, 5-3 Mid-American Conference) and Blue Raiders (6-6, 4-4 Conference USA) arrive at the Bahamas Bowls converging from different paths.

Toledo flirted with a 10+ win season in 2021, coming heartbreakingly-close in four contests that the Rockets’ lost by a combined nine points, including a three-point loss to fifth-ranked Notre Dame, two-point loss to MAC champion Northern Illinois, and a three-point loss to 2021 MAC West co-champs Central Michigan.

The Rockets finished the season strong by crushing its last three opponents by a combined score of 133-54.

Middle Tennessee’s season can be described as a tale of perseverance and toughness, where talented program veterans combined with rising youth to beat adversity to get to back to bowling. Starting the 2021 campaign with a 1-3 record, the Blue Raiders went 5-3 to end the season, including a gritty 27-17 win over the Florida Atlantic Owls in the season’s final game to become bowl eligible. On the road and with multiple players not practicing much or playing due to illness, the Blue Raiders scored 24 unanswered second-half points behind its 4th-team QB and playmaking defense, erasing a 17-3 halftime deficit to defeat the Owls in route to their sixth win.


When Toledo Has The Ball

Toledo is capable of a balanced offensive attack, but Middle Tennessee is going to need to slow down Toledo’s rushing game if they are going to win this one, because Toledo’s ground game has been on fire on the last three games, accounting for 801 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Toledo’s rushing attack features some of the MAC’s best talent, led by Junior RB Bryant Koback, whose explosive 2021 campaign (1,274 rushing, 15 rushing TDs) vaulted him into consideration as one of Toledo all-time greats as he now ranks in the top five in program history in career touchdowns and rushing yards. Koback’s final touchdown run of the season was the 45th of his career, surpassing current Cleveland Browns running back Kareem Hunt for 2nd all-time in Toledo history and his 3,907 rushing yards places him 4th in program history.

Dual-threat QB freshman Dequan Finn, who played some in the early going, emerged as the starter in Week 7 and has terrorized defenses on the ground this season with 401 yards rushing and eight scores.

Leading the way for Toledo’s running game will be All-MAC performers center Bryce Harris and left tackle Vitaliy Gurman.

Middle Tennessee presents a very credible challenge to Toledo’s accomplished rushing attack as the Blue Raiders run defense has galvanized over the season, not allowing a 100-yard rusher over the last seven games. Holding Koback under 100 yards this week would be quite a feather in Middle Tennessee’s cap as the Toledo feature back has rushed for over 100 yards in each of the last five games.

A player leading the charge for Middle Tennessee’s rushing defense will be 2021 first-team, all-conference safety Reed Blankenship, who owns the Blue Raider career record for tackles with 415, and is first in C-USA in 2021 in solo tackles and second in total tackles.

Should the Rockets wish or need to throw the ball in bunches, they have the personnel who can do just that. Dequan Finn enters the contest with a single-game high 461-yard effort versus Eastern Michigan earlier this year and he has plenty of targets, such as WR Devin Maddox, who leads the squad with 38 receptions for 562 yards and four scores.

6’5”, 200-pound WR Matt Landers, a transfer from Georgia, has recently emerged as a credible target, leading the Rockets in receiving three of the last four games, including a 150-yard, two-touchdown effort he unleashed on Eastern Michigan.

Koback is also used regularly in the passing game with 29 catches on the year and has been explosive at times, as illustrated by plays like the one recently against Akron where Koback turned a screen play on third down and 36 into a 51-yard score.

A final major issue of interest in this one for the Toledo offense is turnovers, as the game features the best against the best in the FBS; Toledo’s offense is ranked first, having surrendered just six turnovers on the season while Middle Tennessee’s defense is first in turnovers forced with 31. Leading the way for the Rockets in this area is QB Finn, who has thrown just one interception in 211 pass attempts. Middle Tennessee’s CB Quincy Riley has played a big role in the Blue Raiders’ 2021 turnover bonanza with a team-leading five picks on the season.


When MTSU Has The Ball

The Blue Raiders bring some rising young talent and veteran presence to the table offensively, but what Middle Tennessee can ultimately get done against an improved Toledo defense is one of the questions of the contest.

Injuries and other circumstances have provided young Blue Raider QBs opportunities to play early and they have shown promise, leading Middle Tennessee to critical victories to close out the season. Third or fourth on the depth chart to start the season, QB Nick Vattiato got the call in the month of November to be the main guy and performed well enough to be named to the C-USA All-Freshman team.

Middle Tennessee may also use sophomore QB Mike DiLiello, who subbed in for an ailing Vattiato in the second half of the last game, sparking the Blue Raiders to the comeback win over the Owls with a rushing and passing touchdown.

The Blue Raiders have leaned more on the pass than the rush on the whole this season and the main target is 6’5”, 230 pound, WR-turned-TE Jimmy Marshall, who leads Middle Tennessee with 45 receptions for 510 yards and six touchdowns.

Middle Tennessee’s offense also boasts one of the top emerging playmakers in C-USA in Freshman WR Jaylin Lane, whose 1002 all-purpose yards leads the squad. Lane’s 16.8 yards per punt return, including a 70-yard score, is the type of explosive play the Blue Raiders will need to beat the Rockets.

The Blue Raiders offense will be tested by a maturing Toledo defense. Since the last time the Rockets went bowling in 2018, Toledo’s defense has improved dramatically in points allowed per game, with going from eighth in the MAC in 2018 with over 30 points allowed per contest to best in the MAC in 2021 with just 21 points per game.

Leading the charge for the Rockets against the Blue Raiders’ passing attack is one of the most versatile defenders in the Conference, three-time All-MAC selection Junior Jamal Hines, who has 82 tackles, 10 sacks, and eight PBUs in 2021.

Helping to counter MTSU’s Marshall and Lane will be First-Team, All-MAC DBs Sam Womack and Tycen Anderson. Womack has demonstrated elite cover skills with 14 PBU’s this season.


Prediction

The Rockets are favored by 10 points in this one for a reason as they bring a team capable of dominating opponents on either side of the ball in any given week.

With a stout run defense, a takeaway mentality, emerging playmakers, and sheer grit, Middle Tennessee has what it takes to get things done in this one.

Ultimately, if Toledo keeps turnovers to a minimum and avoids surrendering big special teams plays, the Rockets should cover by a score of 34-20.