The Toledo Rockets (7-5, 5-3 MAC) won the MAC West for the first time since 2017 early in November, with the last two games serving as a warm-up of sorts for the game to come.
The title was a welcome sight for Rockets fans, considering they hadn’t finished above third in the West Division since their last championship appearance. Awaiting them is the MAC East champion Ohio Bobcats, who they will face for the first time since a 35-23 victory in November 2021.
Since the first “modern” MAC Championship game in 1997, Toledo will have appeared in seven of them, including this weekend’s contest. The Rockets have won three of those contests (2001, 2004, 2017), and will look to add number four to the trophy case on Saturday afternoon.
Toledo is certainly no stranger to the MAC Championship game. Was their road to Detroit as pretty as their fans had hoped? Let’s take a look at how the Rockets got to this point.
The Rockets’ Trajectory to Detroit
Toledo looked to get themselves back into MAC Championship contention after having lost the 2021 Bahamas Bowl to Middle Tennessee, which resulted in snapping a three-game win streak at the end of the year. An offense that averaged 435.5 yards/game a year ago (37th in the FBS, 2021), coupled with a defense that allowed 342.3 yards/game (32nd in the FBS, 2021), left many wondering if Toledo would build upon that success.
Their head of mission control, Jason Candle, entered his seventh season as the head coach of the Rockets in 2022, and hoped that last year would teach some lessons to his veteran squad. The big thing from last year was that five of their six losses last year were in one-possession games.
“Last year taught us that the margin of error is so thin, and you have to be at your best to win league games,” Candle said in a Media Day interview back in August. “... So to have six losses, there is a lot of self-reflection and a lot of things to look in the mirror and fix. I think our senior leadership and our coaches have done a good job of addressing some of those issues.”
Candle has proven that he can coach a winning football team.
Before this year, he has put up a 45-30 record (including the 2015 Boca Raton Bowl as interim head coach after Matt Campbell left for Iowa State). Even though Candle has had only one 10+ win season, he only has one season at the helm where his team finished at .500 (2019), and has never fallen below that line in his tenure.
The Rockets’ 2022 non-conference schedule included a mixed bag of opponents. Toledo easily defeated Long Island and UMass to start 2-0 on the year.
The next week was Ohio State, and while Toledo scored on their first drive to tie Ohio State, Ohio State turned on the jets to win 77-21. The next week, the Rockets flew cross-country to take on San Diego State. It was a frustrating loss, as SDSU would come back late to defend home turf 17-14 in the final minutes despite Toledo collecting more first downs, more passing yards, more possession time and more total yards. It was ultimately turnovers which did them in, as they gave up four.
With that San Diego State loss still sitting in everyone’s mind, how would Toledo start off back in MAC play? The first three games were very convincing for the Rockets, defeating Central Michigan, defending champion Northern Illinois, and defending runner-up Kent State by an average of almost 21 points to show everyone they mean business.
Then they took on Buffalo, who was on a four-game win streak after what seemed like an abysmal start to the year. Toledo had the advantage for 45 minutes, then they ended up crashing and burning. The Bulls charged at Toledo after trailing 27-10 after 3 quarters, scoring 24 unanswered points to stun the Rockets, and handed them their first conference loss of 2022. Much like the SDSU game, turnovers became a factor in this game, with an abysmal six turnovers (four interceptions, two lost fumbles), which would be the season high total for the Rockets.
After the Buffalo gut punch, Toledo responded nicely with a win in Ypsilanti against Eastern Michigan. Backup QB Tucker Gleason, a transfer from Georgia Tech, was tasked with filling in for the injured Dequan Finn. Gleason stepped up with three touchdown passes, including a late rally to take the lead with under three minutes remaining. Gleason, along with backup kicker Luke Pawlak’s perfect day on extra points and field goals, were key in the 27-24 result.
The next week was Ball State. Dequan Finn was healthy enough to return to the starting QB position, and it proved to be vital. It was a back-and-forth contest, and Finn undoubtedly had his best game all year. He threw for 301 yards (his season high) and three touchdowns. Even though Ball State was up 21-14 early in the third quarter, Toledo found a way to win by a final score of 28-21 when the clock hit triple zeroes. Not only was it a big win in the Glass Bowl on their first midweek #MACtion game, it was enough to clinch a spot in Detroit and represent the MAC West due to tiebreakers.
Toledo was riding high after clinching a spot in the championship game.
There was no time to rest on their laurels, however, as their first contest as the West champions would be against rival Bowling Green, who was fighting for the right to go to Detroit themselves.
With Dequan Finn being injured and in a walking boot, he was ruled out for the Battle of I-75. Tucker Gleason stepped in and proved he could play some ball again, after doing so against Eastern Michigan. Toledo once again found themselves in less-than-ideal circumstances, trailing 21-0 early in the first half. The Rockets would eventually come back to a 21-14 deficit at halftime for positive momentum. Scoring 0 points in the 3rd Quarter, it looked like Bowling Green’s defense was going to hold Toledo down. But you don’t count out any MAC team, let alone the Rockets. Toledo scored 21 points in the fourth quarter to take a 35-34 lead, but Bowling Green took 38 seconds to march down the field and ultimately seal the game, handing Toledo the first rivalry loss since 2019.
Their last game was in Kalamazoo against Western Michigan and, on paper, it seemed to be a bounce back game for the Rockets after the disappointing loss to Bowling Green the previous week. The Broncos ended up channeling their inner Lee Corso and said, “NOT SO FAST!”, forcing four Toledo turnovers to take home a win on Senior Day and salvage a .500 in-league record.
All in all, it was an up and down season for the Rockets on first glance, finishing 7-5 (5-3 MAC). However, they had done enough to clinch their spot in Detroit this year, after defeating Ball State. Having lost two straight since then, many wonder what Toledo team will show up on Saturday. But as we’ve seen with MACtion this year, no team will go down without a fight, and Toledo will do just that to try and claim the trophy once again. Jason Candle now sits at a 52-35 record, and looks to be in a solid place overtake legendary coach Tom Amstutz’s place next year as second winningest head football coach at the University of Toledo (needs 7 wins to jump Amstutz).
Players to Watch
If you can’t pick a player to watch, at least let it be one of the QBs. The big one is if Dequan Finn is healthy. If Finn is healthy, he’ll have the dual-threat dynamic for the game that has been crucial for Toledo’s play this year. If not, Tucker Gleason has proven himself in his very small sample size. What we do know is that no matter who is playing this game, both QBs have been successful
Every QB has to have a reliable wide receiver. Toledo will need Jerjuan Newton to keep stepping up for the passing game. Devin Maddox may need to play a role if Newton is held in check.
Even though running backs took a back seat this year, Jacquez Stewart may need to play a role if Finn is not healthy, or to make the game not as reliant on Finn, should he play. Toledo was 3rd in the MAC for rushing yards/game.
The defense as a whole needs to step up. Ohio’s offense led the MAC with the most average yards/game. The secondary will need to be on their toes, as Ohio put up the most average passing yards. Toledo managed to get 31 sacks on the year. Jamal Hines and Desjuan Johnson led the way in the sack department. If Toledo is to get to the QB, those two will need to be explosive.
Offense, Offense, Offense
Toledo’s launching pad is solid (Quarterbacks, I promise that’s the last pun). Between Finn and Gleason, they combined for:
- 2,807 yards passing (61st in FBS)
- 29 passing touchdowns (T-15th in FBS)
- 15 interceptions (T-8th highest in FBS)
They also managed to combine for:
- 707 rushing yards (Finn - 522, Gleason - 185)
- 11 rushing touchdowns (which accounts for half of Toledo’s rushing TDs).
- They have also been sacked a combined 23 times.
How did this years running backs step up?
- Jacquez Stuart ultimately prevailed as Toledo’s leading rusher, though he only rushed for 566 yards (136th in FBS) and three TDs on just 102 attempts. He did produce two 100+ yd performances with a season high 122 against Central Michigan
- Dequan Finn ended up being the second leading rusher for the rockets with 522 yards (T-161st in FBS) and eight TDs.
Toledo’s receiving corps had way more production from last year.
- Jerjuan Newton 711 yards (90th in FBS)
- Devin Maddox, 519 yards (189th in FBS)
As a whole offensive unit:
- 407.1 yds/game (51st in FBS)
- 233.9 pass yards/game (61st in FBS)
- 173.2 rush yards/game (53rd in FBS)
- 33.3 points/game (T-35th in FBS)
- Red Zone Efficiency: 89.4% (25th in FBS)
- 3rd down conversions: 37.5% (T-82nd in FBS)
One final note for the offense:
- The Rockets turnover ratio was -9. Toledo is 0-4 when finishing a game with 3+ turnovers, and 7-1 with 2 or less turnovers.
Defense may decide the championship
The Rocket defense managed the following:
- 337.8 yards allowed/game (29th in FBS, first in MAC)
- 27.1 points allowed/game (73rd in FBS, fourth in MAC)
- 903 tackles led by LB Dallas Gant with 102 total tackles, followed by LB Dyontae Johnson with 94 total tackles.
- 11 interceptions (T-37th in FBS) led by Quinyon Mitchell with 5
- 31 sacks (T-27th in FBS) led by Jamal Hines with 6.5, followed by Desjuan Johnson with 5.5 sacks.
- 3rd down defense: 33.5% opponent conversion (26th in FBS)
- 4th down defense: 45.5% opponent conversion (T-40th in FBS)
Toledo’s special teams managed the following:
- Made 12 of 16 FG attempts: Thomas Cluckey made 10 of 14, missing two each from 30-39 and 40-49 yards, Luke Pawlak made 2 of 2 from 27 and 44 yards.
- 100% XP conversions (52 of 52): Thomas Cluckey made 49 of 49, Luke Pawlak made 3 of 3.
- Jonathon Batzke averaged 38.9 yards per punt, with a longest of 91 yards, and nine punts inside the 20.
- Averaged 16 yards/kickoff return (T-125th in FBS)
- Averaged 7.6 yards/punt return (T-67th in FBS)