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The last time the Toledo Rockets were in the MAC Championship Game

The Rocket offense blasted their way to a conference title in 2017.

MAC Championship - Akron v Toledo

Jamal Turner caught a touchdown pass from Dequan Finn on a play-action pass to the right corner of the endzone with 1:18 left in the game, and the tie was broken. The Toledo Rockets would beat the Ball State Cardinals 28-21 to improve to 5-1— and secure their place in the MAC Championship Game with the win on November 8th.

This Saturday’s game against the Ohio Bobcats will be the Rocket's first appearance in the championship game since 2017.

Toledo was the MAC Champion that year behind a high-powered offense and a solid defense. The Akron team they faced was not expected to be in Detroit right up until the end of the regular season, securing a win over Kent State in the final game to get in over Ohio, while Toledo was the favorite in the preseason coaches poll.

Ohio and Miami were separated by two points in the preseason poll for the MAC East title, and the Rockets received 21 of 24 votes to win the championship game. Akron had been selected to finish fourth in their division in the preseason poll.

Before the season started, the Rockets were one of two MAC teams to get votes in the preseason Aramco Top 25 Coaches Poll. Western Michigan was coming off of a 13-1 season as reigning MAC Champs, but everyone could see that this Toledo team was excellent. One coach put them in their poll at #25.

In the lead-up to the season, the Hustle Belt staff did Top 30 Player profiles, with four Rockets making the list, including: wide receiver Jon’Vea Johnson (#24), running back Terry Swanson (#19), wide receiver Cody Thompson (#4), and quarterback Logan Woodside, who was declared the best MAC player heading into the 2017 campaign.

That list should tell you that their offense was expected to be outstanding and the reason they would win games in 2017. Western Michigan was an absolute machine in the MAC a season prior and with PJ Fleck off to Minnesota and key seniors departing on both sides of the ball. The only roadblocks on Toledo’s path to the MAC Championship were potential injuries and their own execution.

It was championship or bust.

Jason Candle was entering his second full season as the Rocket’s head coach after Matt Campbell left for Iowa State. Candle had been on the Toledo staff since 2009 under Tim Beckman and was retained through the transition to Campbell. He was named the head coach three days after Campbell left and led the Rockets to a win in the 2015 Boca Raton Bowl.

The offense was unquestionably led by quarterback Logan Woodside. He was coming into his third and final season as the Rockets starting quarterback after throwing for more than 4,000 yards and 45 touchdowns in 2016. He was the First Team All-MAC quarterback and would repeat that accomplishment in 2017. He would add the Offensive Player of the Year Award as well as the Vern Smith Leadership Award.

MAC Championship - Akron v Toledo

His 2017 season wasn’t as good statistically as his 2016 season, but any player would trade that for a championship. He still led the MAC in passing yards, yards per pass, completion percentage and passing touchdowns. By the time he was done at Toledo he was their career leader in passing yardage, yards per attempt, efficiency, touchdowns and number of 300+ yard passing games. He would go on to be drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the seventh round and play in the only season the Alliance of American Football for the San Antonio Commanders. He is currently on the Tennessee Titans practice squad, with a handful of regular season appearances for the Titans.

There was one weapon for Woodside that no one outside Toledo saw coming in wide receiver Diontae Johnson. As a sophomore, he was listed as the backup X receiver prior to the opening game against Elon, but it didn’t stay that way. Johnson set the school single-season receiving yards record that season and led the team with 74 catches.

Ball State v Toledo Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

He was the surprise top target for Woodside that took a receiver room from good to great. The two receivers that were expected to be the top targets were Cody Thompson and Jon’Vea Johnson. Thompson had just set the single-season receiving yards record, that Diontae broke, in 2016 with a ridiculous 19.8 yards per catch average. Jon’Vea was right up there with a 19.3 yards per catch average that same season. When Thompson went down for the season with a broken leg, they had the depth to make up for it.

At running back Terry Swanson took over for another player that would play in the NFL, Kareem Hunt. Swanson waited patiently for his time to shine and got it in 2017. To that point in his college career, he totaled 372 carries for 2,238 yards and 17 touchdowns. He had already had great career numbers, and he set career bests in carries, yards and touchdowns on the way to the MAC Championship.

Add in two first-team all-MAC tackles in Elijah Nkansah and Brent Weiss, and the Rocket offense was a special group. In terms of career yards at their respective positions, Woodside, all three wide receivers and Swanson would finish with top-ten careers for the Rockets.

And it showed on the field.

Over the twelve regular season games and the MAC Championship, they averaged 39 points a game, scoring at least at least 37 points in eight contests. The Rockets’ season-high came against their rival Bowling Green, when they dropped 66 points in a game where UT ran for seven total touchdowns and threw for two more. Running back Shakif Seymour scored five times on 12 carries. It was an offensive showcase in the penultimate game of the regular season.

The defense was led by edge rusher and linebacker Ola Adeniyi who had 20 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. He was the highest-performing individual on the roster, and is now a five-year veteran in the NFL, spending time with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans. The Toledo defense was strong as a unit, 54th in SP+, but didn’t have individual star power outside of Adeniyi.

Kicker Jameson Vest deserves to be mentioned, as he is still the Toledo all-time scoring leader. He was automatic from inside 30 yards and 5-of-7 from 40 yards and longer. Vest was another weapon in the arsenal for the Rockets in 2017.

The Rockets in 2017 didn’t have the luxury of resting starters like the 2022 squad, with Northern Illinois pushing them to the final week of the regular season. Toledo put that to rest with a convincing 37-10 win over Western Michigan, ensuring a new representative for the West division.

By the time the Rockets showed up in Detroit, they were a well-oiled machine and made quick work of the Zips. The final score was 45-28 in favor of the Rockets, but in the third quarter, they had a 38-0 lead.

MAC Championship - Akron v Toledo

For a championship-or-bust season to end with a convincing MAC Championship Game blowout is rare. Toledo would go on to the Dollar General Bowl and got shutout against Appalachian State 34-0. It wasn’t a graceful end to the season, but they had achieved their goals and won their first conference championship in 13 years.

This season there’s more angst among the Toledo faithful for Candle to finally turn the best-recruiting classes every year into a conference title. Ohio and Toledo will settle that on Saturday at noon in Detroit.