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2021 Mid-American Conference Football Week 1 Game Preview: Norfolk State Spartans @ Toledo Rockets

The Rockets make their return to the gridiron against a school which hasn't played since 2019.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 29 Toledo at Fresno State Photo by David Dennis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Game Notes

  • Time and Date: Saturday, Sept. 4th, 7 PM
  • TV/Streaming network: ESPN3
  • Location: The Glass Bowl in Toledo, Ohio
  • Spread: Toledo –37.5
  • ESPN FPI: Toledo 99.3%
  • All-time series: First ever meeting.

Norfolk State:

The Norfolk State Spartans haven’t played since 2019 due to the COVID pandemic. When we last saw the Spartans, they finished 5-7, but were on the up-and-up, winning three of their last four games.

2021 marks the first season for new Spartan head coach, Dawson Odums. He was previously the head coach at Southern University where he went 63-35. Odums took over in April, which is fairly recent for a coaching change in college football. Their previous head coach, Latrell Scott, left to take a position as tight ends coach for East Carolina.

It’ll be a tough debut for Odums, as Norfolk State is 0-13 all time against the FBS, and 0-1 all-time against MAC schools, with a loss in 2012 to Ohio.

Norfolk State might pose to be a tricky matchup for the Rockets, as Toledo will have no recent game film to go off of and what film they do have from 2019, will be of the previous coaching staff. It certainly helps the Spartans that they were selected to finish second in the MEAC by the league’s coaches, so they won’t be a slouch, by any means.

Even though they last played in 2019, the Spartans return 63 percent of their rushing yards, 95 percent of their passing yards, 81 percent of their receiving yards, 38 percent of their tackles, 58 percent of their sacks and 54 percent of their interceptions. 14 Spartans made the preseason all-MEAC teams as well, so they’re certainly not devoid of talent.

QB Juwan Carter was the preseason MEAC offensive player of the year. He had 23 touchdowns to eight picks in 2019 for 2,631 yards. NSU’s 28.9 points per game average was a school record in 2019.

HB Kevin Johnson, another first team all-MEAC selection, rushed for eight touchdowns and a 5.4 yards per carry across 86 carries in 2019. While WR Da’Kendall James had had four touchdowns and 557 yards on 37 catches. Fellow receiver Justin Smith is also a name to watch. Tight end Shawn McFarland had 15 receptions in 2019 and was also preseason all-MEAC.

Offensive linemen Jalen Powell and Justin Redd anchor the line.

Defensively, the Spartans are strong up front with De’Shaan Dixon, Chris Myers, and Tavien Blackwell as first team all-league selections. Dixon had four sacks, Myers had nine sacks in 2019, and Blackwell added 3.5 sacks with 7.5 tackles for a loss.

Devyn Coles anchors the defensive secondary after having five interceptions in 2019. Fellow DB Bobby Savage is another solid player. The last time NSU played their defense featured defensive back Bobby Price, who has since graduated and is a member of the Detroit Lions.

Specialists in kicker Josh Nardone and punter Ryan Richter are first team all-MEAC players.

Football bowl subdivision additions via the transfer portal include DB Tyree Rogers from Virginia Tech, lineman Jeff Woods from U-Conn, half back JJ Davis from Cincinnati, DB Tayvion Land from Liberty, and QB Jonah Fitzgerald from Old Dominion.

Toledo Rockets

Toledo was picked to finish second in the MAC by the esteemed MAC media.

Jason Candle’s squad will turn to QB Carter Bradley as their starter this fall, replacing Eli Peters. Bradley has seen limited action in recent years and is the son of NFL defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. He threw for 849 yards and nine touchdowns to just five interceptions in four games last fall. He flashed his potential, finishing third in the MAC in passing efficiency, and had his coming-out party against NIU, throwing for 432 yards against the Huskies.

Despite Bradley’s potential, expect the Rockets to be paced by star back Bryant Koback. Koback ranks ninth all time of Toledo’s rushing list, and is a Doak Walker list nominee. He rushed for 522 yards and four touchdowns last fall. He has 30 touchdowns over the last three seasons.

In what should be a fun storyline to watch, Isaiah Winstead will be playing against his former team after transferring from Norfolk State to Toledo following the 2019 season. He was third-team all-MAC last fall after leading the team with 25 catches and 429 yards.

Bryce Mitchell returns after starting four games a year ago with 13 catches for 306 yards and a team high four touchdowns. Winstead, and Mitchell will be joined by Danzel McKinley-Lewis as capable playmakers. Georgia transfer Matt Landers is another name to watch at receiver.

The Rockets are experienced up front with veteran center Bryce Harris, junior tackle Mitchell Berg, senior guard Vitally Guzman, guard Tyler Long and tackles Nick Rosi and Laval Dumont. This should be one of the MAC’s best front lines as their clear paths for Koback but will be tested against an underrated NSU line.

The Rockets defense is also experienced let up front by edge Jamal Hines, who was second team All-MAC last fall. He had 29 tackles and two last fall. At linebacker, Dyontae Johnson is one of the best in the MAC, after leading the team with 47 tackles last fall, while defensive back Samuel Womack is on the preseason Jim Thorpe watch list and is a nominee for the Senior Bowl. He had eight pass breakups last fall. Penn State transfer Judge Culpepper is listed as the Rockets starting defensive tackle in their two-deep depth chart, and should be a contributor immediately.

The Rockets defense vastly improved last fall from their 2019 collapse, but expect them to be tested early against a sneakily talented Norfolk State offense.

Norfolk State will be a solid team in the new look six-team MEAC, but despite the similar sounding names, the MEAC is not the MAC.

They face long odds to be able to knock off one of the favorites from the MAC. Despite the likelihood of the Rockets winning this game, don’t be surprised if the game isn’t closer than expected or at least early.

NSU will be unveiling a new look with a new coaching staff, and Toledo will have no recent film to go off. The Spartans, with a play-maker like Carter at QB and a strong defensive line, have the ability to flash, much like Western Illinois did against Ball State the other night.

That being said, expect an experienced Rocket squad to ride Koback and have Bradley look to make good on his potential against NSU.

(Note: The city of Toledo is hosting an event called the Solheim Cup which is the woman’s golf version of the Ryder Cup. Area businesses could see increased traffic and some parts of Toledo may have increased delays or road closures, so if you’re attending, please plan ahead.)