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What We Learned from Western Michigan’s 20-14 win over Toledo

Western Michigan beat the MAC West Champion Toledo by forcing turnovers and winning the situationals.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 09 NIU at Western Michigan Photo by Joseph Weiser/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Western Michigan beat Toledo 20-14 on Black Friday in a game of punts. There were 25 total punts when most games don’t have 25 possessions. Both defenses played well and limited the offenses to two combined touchdowns.

The game was not a fun watch despite the tension at the end, as Toledo got their offense in gear at the end of the fourth quarter to make it a one-possession game.

The Bronco offense started Jack Salopek at quarterback and averaged 2.7 yards per play. How in the world did they score 20 points?

Western Michigan won by forcing four turnovers

Team Yards Per Play 3rd Downs Avg Yards to Go Scoring Opps Avg Field Position
Toledo 4.3 4 for 18 6.9 4 26
W. Michigan 2.7 2 for 19 8.7 3 37

The Broncos forced four turnovers while surrendering one. They turned those four turnovers into 14 points— and effectively the win. If turnovers on downs are included, you could well argue the Broncos forced six total.

Dorian Jackson intercepted a tipped pass in WMU territory late in the first quarter to end Toledo’s first possession that crossed the 50-yard line. Redshirt freshman Aaron Wofford closed on receiver Devin Maddox and delivered a perfectly timed hit to pop the ball into the air for Jackson to catch it. The Broncos stopped a potential scoring opportunity but failed to score. They punted on their next possession.

The next three turnovers were absolute killers.

Dequan Finn had returned to the game for the Rockets and was targeting an out route to the Western Michigan sideline. Cornerback Keni-H Lovely saw it all the way in and returned it 39 yards to the house to tie the game at seven.

A holding penalty moved Toledo back to the WMU 41 for a first-and-20 on their second drive of the third quarter. Tucker Gleason scrambled through the middle of the line for a gain of 17 yards before defensive end Andre Carter punched the ball out from behind. Linebacker Zaire Barnes returned the ball seven yards to give the ball to the Bronco offense at their own 31.

This was a rare scoring opportunity for the Rockets. If Gleason holds onto the ball, it's second-and-three from the 24. They were on the move and down by three points, and if the drive stalls at the 24-yard line a field goal attempt to tie the game is in play.

The last turnover was in the fourth quarter with 3:35 left to play and two timeouts remaining. The Rockets had just scored a touchdown to get to within six points on a four-play, 95-yard drive. All they needed to do was run their offense and get in the endzone. Every series is a four-down series with no need to hurry. Defensive lineman Warren Dabney knocked a pass off-line and safety Bricen Garner was in position to intercept the pass.

The Broncos forced the Rockets to burn their timeouts and wasted some clock before a last-gasp drive ended in a turnover on downs.

Toledo owned a pretty massive advantage in yards per play, but they weren’t explosive until it was too late. The 95-yard touchdown drive was full of chunk plays they could have used throughout the game, and their yards per play drops a whole yard without those four plays.

Western Michigan’s advantage in field position is due to the numerous turnovers and punter Nick Mihalic sending the ball deep into Toledo territory. The Bronco offense was atrocious in this game and squandered the field position advantage for the majority of the game. In their four drives that started in Toledo territory, the Broncos were able to get one field goal. They punted twice from inside the Toledo 40-yard line.

The analysis begins and ends with the turnovers the Broncos were able to force on defense. Western Michigan was able to make that advantage stick despite being objectively abysmal on offense.

Who will Toledo start at quarterback?

Dequan Finn was the starter at the beginning of the season and was one of the top two quarterbacks in the league. He was injured during the final play of the game in Week 8 against Buffalo.

At the end of three quarters, the Rockets had a 27-10 lead and a furious comeback by Buffalo had given them a 34-27 advantage. Finn led the Rockets to the redzone in the final drive of the game and forced a pass to the endzone under pressure that was intercepted. Finn was injured during the return and missed the next week's game.

Tucker Gleason came in to make his first start of the season and threw for 238 yards and three touchdowns in a win over Eastern Michigan. Finn returned to lead the Rockets in a win over Ball State that would make them the MAC West champions.

Gleason started to rest a recovering Finn against rival Bowling Green and was impressive. He ran for two touchdowns and passed for three more with over 400 yards of total offense. It was not enough to get the win as the defense and special teams allowed 42 points.

All that context to get to this game.

Both quarterbacks played, and neither played well. Finn started and threw for fewer than four yards per attempt with two interceptions. Gleason was far more explosive with 200 yards passing but he completed a paltry 34 percent of his passes.

The Rockets are headed into the MAC Championship Game with questions about quarterback health and without a clear hot hand. Not just that, but both Finn (ankle) and Gleason (throwing hand) carry significant injuries they’ll have to test in practices this week. No other player has taken snaps at QB for the Rockets, so it truly is a quandary.

Without someone to consistently get the ball to Jerjuan Newton, Devin Maddox and the rest of the receivers,l the offense struggles. They were certainly being conservative against the Broncos, but the Rockets would like to see stronger performances than a combined 4.8 yards per pass with one touchdown and three interceptions.

The Toledo defense was lights out

It wasn’t a secret the Toledo defense was poised to have a great day and they did. There was a small question about who would play and if anyone would be on a pitch count, but when the big names were on the field they made big plays.

Desjuan Johnson had a sack and 2.5 tackles for loss. Jamal Hines led the Rockets with nine total tackles and Nate Givhan sacked Jack Salopek twice. In the back end, four players broke up five passes. Cornerback Quinyon Mitchell read Salopek’s eyes, jumped the route and returned the interception six yards before being brought down.

In total, the defense had six sacks and twelve tackles for loss. The Rockets highlighted their pass rush and five of the sacks came on third down plays. All were obvious passing situations created by success on first and second down.

Toledo allowed one long touchdown run and two field goals. That was a strong showing and was enough to win, but unfortunately, the offense gave the Broncos seven points.

The Rockets are going to need to replicate this performance against a much better offense in the MAC Championship Game. The Bobcat offense has big-play receivers, a tough running back and a quarterback that can make plays.

Toledo receivers disappear

Most of the issue starts with the quarterbacks not being able to consistently deliver the ball, but there’s a problem when Jerjuan Newton only has one catch for nine yards. He averages about four catches a game and more than 15 yards per catch. He has nine touchdown catches this season and the Broncos were able to remove him from the gameplan.

Devin Maddox made some big plays and averaged almost 20 yards per catch. Unfortunately for the Rockets, he’s the lone bright spot.

DeMeer Blankumsee caught a 17-yard touchdown pass to bring the score to within six points late in the fourth quarter, but that was also his only catch. The Broncos were able to keep a lid on the Toledo offense and force passes to be thrown to tight ends and shallow routes.

A little judgment is reserved because of the circumstances of the game. If the Rockets needed this win to get to Detroit they would’ve played it differently.

Braden Fiske and Sean Tyler walked on Senior Day

Since Friday, Western Michigan has decided to move on from Tim Lester and begin the search for a new head coach. With that context, more roster shake-up is on the way, but two stars for the 2022 squad participated in Senior Day festivities with eligibility remaining.

It may mean nothing for Tyler, but Fiske has entered the transfer portal.

Braden Fiske has been party to 58 total tackles from an interior defensive lineman position with 12 tackles for loss and six sacks in 2022. He’s also deflected three passes and forced two fumbles. He has been an extremely active and effective part of the WMU front seven.

For his career, he has 27.5 tackles for loss with 13.5 sacks over 45 games. Fiske leaves difficult shoes to fill at Western Michigan.

Sean Tyler will be equally difficult to replace if it comes to that for the Broncos. Tyler has rushed for over 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons and has returned three kickoffs for touchdowns. He was all-MAC second-team back in 2021 behind Bryant Koback from Toledo and the NCAA’s leading rusher Lew Nichols.

Tyler has been the only serious option in the Bronco rushing attack since La’Darius Jefferson has been suspended for a violation of team rules. That combined with the problems the passing game has faced has led to Tyler being the workhorse for the Bronco offense in 2022.

All of this could be a moot point with the very real potential of major roster turnover, but if Tyler sticks around one more season in Kalamazoo the new head coach would have a good piece to build around.

Salopek started and picked up where he left off

Tim Lester held true freshman Treyson Bourguet out of the game to maintain his redshirt. Bourguet had started the previous four games for the Broncos, leading them to a 2-2 record. The fifth appearance would burn a year of eligibility so the Broncos turned to Jack Salopek.

Salopek had been the starter for the opening seven games of the season and was removed after a five-interception performance against the Ohio Bobcats. He didn’t throw five interceptions in this game, but he still wasn’t good.

Salopek completed seven passes on 21 attempts for 54 yards with an interception. On top of passing inefficiency that plagued him all season, he took six sacks.

Salopek was sacked 18 times in his four games against MAC opponents over 153 dropbacks. The Ball State game is a major outlier with 43 pass attempts and no sacks. With that game removed the sack rate jumps from 11.7 percent to 16.4 percent. Against Toledo, he was sacked more than once in every five pass attempts.

Maybe a new coach and a new philosophy will be the change he needs to flourish as a college quarterback, but 2022 was not Salopek’s best season.