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2022 MAC Football Championship Game Preview: Toledo Rockets vs Ohio Bobcats

East meets West in the Motown Showdown for MAC supremacy.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 07 MAC Championship Game Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Game Notes

  • Time and Date: Saturday, December 3, 2022, noon Eastern time
  • Network: ESPN
  • Streaming: ESPN App (A valid cable subscription is required.)
  • Radio: Both teams can be heard via the Varsity Network App.
  • Location: Ford Field, in Detroit, Michigan
  • Spread/Total: Toledo are three-point favorites according to ESPN
  • Last Meeting: November 16, 2021: Toledo won 35-23

Toledo Rockets

Getting to Know the Rockets

The Rockets’ (7-5, 5-3 MAC West) road to the championship game was mostly smooth sailing, with the blue and gold winning five out of their first six MAC games to clinch the West division more than three weeks ago with a win over contender Ball State.

Toledo lost its final two games leading up to the championship, a last-second loss to rival Bowling Green and a defensive battle with Western Michigan. Reading too much into those last two losses would be a mistake, as the Rockets are MAC West winners for a reason and will bring some of the MAC’s best talent to the championship.

Toledo features one of the MAC’s finest defenses, allowing just over 25 points per contest in conference play.

As the recently-announced MAC awards show, Toledo’s defense is loaded with talent at all levels with seven of their eleven starters making first or second-team All-MAC in 2022.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 10 Toledo at Bowling Green
Toledo’s Jamal Hines (91) and Dyontae Johnson (2) sack their rival’s quarterback a few weeks ago.
Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The front seven may be the league’s best, starting with a few pro prospects in defensive tackle Desjuan Johnson and Jamal Hines. Johnson and Hines have wreaked havoc in the opponent’s backfield through their careers, combining for 92 tackles-for-loss and 37 sacks.

The second level is patrolled by a couple of ultra-productive 2022 All-MAC award winners in linebackers Dallas Gant and Dyontae Johnson, who combined this year for 196 tackles, eight pass breakups, three sacks and three forced fumbles.

The back end of the defense is loaded too with safety Maxon Hook manning his area with physicality while cornerback Quinyon Mitchell emerging as one of the league’s best cover guys, tied for the league lead in interceptions with five while leading the league in pass breakups with 17.

As good as the Rockets have been this year against the pass, leading the league in pass defense efficiency, a big factor in this one will be Toledo’s run defense. As we talk about below, figure the Bobcats to give the Rockets a heavy dose runs, working the inside and the speed option to the outside.

Offensively, the Rockets are one of the MAC’s best overall units, averaging 33 points a contest. The major question for Toledo is who will play at quarterback and how full speed can they go?

At full strength, dual threat quarterback Dequan Finn causes gray hairs in defensive players and coaches alike, passing for almost 2,000 yards on the season while adding another 500 on the ground and 29 touchdowns (21 pass, 8 rush). How much of Finn’s game will be available Saturday is unknown as the Rockets’ signal caller has been in and out of the line up since suffering an ankle injury late in the game versus Buffalo back on Oct. 22.

Finn’s ability to run the rock has been a key ingredient in Toledo’s success, whether it is a draw to pick up a first down, a scramble, or pulling the ball from his backs and hitting the edge.

If Finn can’t go or finish, Toledo will likely turn to redshirt freshman Tucker Gleason, who has been a critical part of the Rockets’ success. Toledo’s MAC West title was due to a tiebreaker on a head-to-head win over Eastern Michigan. Gleason started that game for an injured Finn and threw three touchdown passes in a 27-24 comeback win versus the Eagles.

Gleason, though, is also possibly still injured, reportedly playing with a pin in his non-throwing hand last week versus Western Michigan.

Whomever starts or plays at quarterback, the order of the day is ball security. The Rockets have thrown 15 interceptions this year and are playing an Ohio squad that is second in the MAC in takeaways with 24. In the three MAC games Toledo lost this year they were bitten hard by the turnover bug with a combined 13 giveaways.

Either quarterback will have the luxury of multiple reliable targets in the passing game, led by explosive playmaker Jerjuan Newton, who is third in the MAC with about just under 17 yards per catch while taking nine to the house. Tight End Jamal Turner has been big in the redzone this year, with five of his eight touchdowns coming inside the twenty-yard line. At 6’6”, Turner presents a nice height advantage over Ohio’s secondary and linebackers.

The Rockets offense is rounded out by the thunder and lightning duo of Peny Boone (235 lbs.) and Jacquez Stuart, who have combined for 976 yards on the ground and six rushing touchdowns this year.

The Ohio Bobcats

Getting to Know the Bobcats

Ohio’s (9-3, 7-1 MAC East) path to the championship was different than Toldeo’s with the ‘Cats punching their ticket to Detroit on the last week of the regular season with a 38-14 win over Bowling Green. The MAC East was especially competitive this year and it took a nearly perfect conference run to seal the deal.

One benefit of the division challenge is that the Bobcats ride a big wave of momentum into the championship game as winners of seven straight.

One of the main storylines of 2022 for the Bobcats has been the growth on the defensive side of the ball throughout the season. Starting with a new defensive coordinator in Spence Nowinsky, it took some time against good non-conference competition to find the right combination of guys while overcoming injuries on the back end and learning a new system, but the defense has arrived.

The Bobcats gave up some explosive pass plays earlier in the year but have gelled into perhaps the MAC best defense, holding opponents to just 19 points per contest during the seven-game winning streak.

The success is a unit-wide effort with a lot of experience in the middle. In his final season, Ohio defensive tackle and captain Kai Caesar has perhaps saved his best for last, as he has routinely made critical second-half plays this year whether it is blocking a field goal, creating a tip drill interception, or a sack.

Out for the 2021 season with injury, perhaps no one has come on more throughout this season than linebacker Keye Thompson, who is the ‘Cats leading tackler with 75.

One of Ohio’s leaders on the back end is safety Tariq Drake. The former cornerback has excelled at safety, earning back-to-back third-team All-MAC awards. Drake was big last week in the division-clinching win with two interceptions.

Offensively, the Bobcats have one of the best units in the MAC, leading the league in scoring with 34 points per tilt while taking care of the ball ranking 12th in the FBS with only 11 turnovers lost.

The offense however suffered a major blow a few weeks back when MAC Player of the Year quarterback Kurtis Rourke was lost for the season with a knee injury.

With Rourke out, backup quarterback CJ Harris answered the bell last week and was awarded MAC East Player of the Week honors in his first career start where he logged 261 all-purpose yards and four scores. Like Finn, Harris is a dual-threat guy who has a very good feel for the running elements, whether it is quarterback draws or options. Harris was a major factor in the redzone last week, where he ran for three scores.

Figure the Bobcats to lean on the run, if possible, given the talent including Harris. Over the past three weeks, partly because of big leads, the Bobcats have run 143 times for 606 yards led by dominant interior line play. The ‘Cats feature some experienced and massive guards, led by first-team All-MAC right guard Hagan Meservy and left guard Kurt Danneker (330 lbs.). The linemen have worn down opponents along with MAC’s Freshman of the Year running back Sieh Bangura, who has a punishing running style. Bangura has rushed for 884 yards and 11 touchdowns this year with 389 yards coming in the last three weeks.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 10 Ohio at Penn State
Ohio running back Sieh Bangura and his teammates celebrate a rushing touchdown earlier this season against Penn State.
Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

That is not to say the Bobcats won’t throw. While CJ Harris hasn’t displayed the in-game rhythm with his receivers like Rourke, going 10 of 21 last week, he did do two important things: no turnovers and picking the right targets.

Harris also has one of the deepest receiving corps in the MAC at his disposal with at least four wideouts and two tight ends who have regularly made plays in 2022 led by first-team, All-MAC wideout Sam Wiglusz, who has 66 catches for 814 yards and tied for league best with 11 touchdowns.

Based on what Ohio has done so far with Harris at the helm, the Rockets will need to prioritize slowly the Bobcats around the line of scrimmage in the running game and with plays like tunnel screens where wideout Jacoby Jones has turned some easy throws into explosive plays recently with a lot of yards after catch.

What to Expect

Both of these teams have great players and coaches and either could win if they put their best foot forward.

The team that plays the cleaner football will likely win the game and based on the play throughout the MAC schedule, Ohio has been more consistent at creating turnovers while avoiding them.

If CJ Harris and company show the same type of ball security they did last week and with Ohio’s attacking defense creating explosive plays, I see Ohio taking home the hardware for the first time since 1968.

Also, at this point in the year, the ‘Cats just feel like a team of destiny. Their progress throughout the season, particularly defensively, feels like the classic company productivity chart, where progress is made at that perfect 45-degree angle heading upwards, with no backward steps.

Ohio 30, Toledo 23