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Three MAC takeaways from an action-packed Week 5

Bowling Green steals the show in Atlanta. Akron loses yet another heartbreaker. Toledo survives yet another shootout.

NCAA Football: Bowling Green at Georgia Tech Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

League play went into full swing for the Mid-American Conference in Week 5. All 12 teams have now logged at least one game into the conference standings for the 2023 season.

Week 5 featured a 6-game slate with five league matchups and one notable non-conference clash between Bowling Green and Georgia Tech. In the midst of it all, it was this non-conference game which stole the headlines this week. As 21-point underdogs, Bowling Green stormed into Atlanta and upended Georgia Tech in 38-27 fashion. The Falcons were recognized as the Cheez-It National Team of the Week by the Football Writers Association of America for their monumental upset.

Elsewhere in the MAC, Western Michigan improved to 1-1 in the league standings by flying past Ball State, 42-24. Toledo found itself in another MAC West offensive shootout and escaped again, edging Northern Illinois 35-33. Central Michigan continued to roll with a 26-23 rivalry win over Eastern Michigan in a back-and-forth affair. Buffalo finally notched one in the win column with a 13-10 overtime victory at Akron in a defensive bout. And finally, Miami (OH) logged its fourth consecutive victory by stifling Kent State’s offense in a 23-3 decision.

Bowling Green will go as far as Bazelak can take them

No team seemingly changed its trajectory in Week 5 more than Bowling Green. The Falcons were staring down a 1-4 start as three-touchdown underdogs in Atlanta, but instead, they pulled out one of the greatest wins of the Scot Loeffler era.

Bowling Green exited Atlanta with a 38-27 mark on the scoreboard, but in reality, it was worse for Georgia Tech for parts of the second half. The Falcons lead ballooned to as much as 24 points in the late third quarter, asserting their dominance over the ACC opponent in all facets of the game.

But what made Bowling Green perform particularly different Saturday? The short answer is: the Falcons found rampant success through the air, and that remarkably elevated the team’s ceiling. The quality of Bowling Green’s passing attack has shown tremendous variance this year, but it’s essentially the determinant of winning vs. losing on a weekly basis.

In Week 1 against Liberty, Bowling Green posted arguably the worst volume passing performance by any FBS team this year. The quarterbacks combined to complete 11-of-31 passes for 137 yards, one touchdown, and five interceptions — yet the team only lost by 10 to an undefeated Liberty squad. But the following week, those shortcomings in the passing game were more than resolved as starter Connor Bazelak connected on 23-of-28 attempts for 319 yards and three touchdowns — averaging 11.4 yards per attempt and refraining from a turnover in a decisive win over Eastern Illinois of the FCS.

NCAA Football: Bowling Green at Georgia Tech
Connor Bazelak is averaging 291 passing yards per game with 4 TD and 0 INT in wins this year.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Bazelak missed the Michigan game due to injury, so Bowling Green thrust backup Camden Orth — who played substantial time in the Liberty game — into the lineup. And the passing game surprisingly worked well against the juggernaut Wolverines under Orth, as he landed 8-of-11 throws for 91 yards. When Orth left the game due to injury in the second quarter, Bowling Green only trailed Michigan, 7-6.

The jarring variability in the passing game continued the next two weeks. Bowling Green was outclassed by Ohio, 38-7, in the MAC opener due to a lack of aerial success. The Falcons’ run game excelled with a 107-yard performance by Terion Stewart but the inability to push the ball through the air plagued them in the blowout. Bazelak finished with a stat-line of 16-of-31 with 109 yards and two interceptions.

But having a short memory as a quarterback is a sign of poise, and the veteran Bazelak demonstrated that Saturday in Atlanta. The former Missouri and Indiana starting quarterback’s passing performance was the key component which allowed the Falcons to drop over 30 points on the Georgia Tech defense. He finished 21-of-32 with 263 yards and one incredible highlight-reel touchdown to Finn Hogan who made a one-handed snag in the end zone. Bazelak didn’t commit a single turnover, keeping Bowling Green’s offense on the field and moving in multidimensional fashion — as Stewart assisted the passing game with 138 rushing yards.

So in summary, Bazelak is 44-of-60 (73.3%) with an average of 291 yards per game, firing for four touchdowns and zero interceptions in wins. In losses, he is 22-of-52 (42.3%) with an average of 90 yards per game, with zero touchdowns and five interceptions in losses.

If Bowling Green passes well, it competes with just about anybody in the MAC. But the variability of that facet is so high, the Falcons are currently acting as a random number generator. Bazelak has shown star potential, and Bowling Green must see more of what he demonstrated in the Georgia Tech game going forward in order to snap the program’s 7-year streak of losing seasons.

Akron is several bounces away from 4-1

This is more of an observation than a takeaway, but the Zips are disturbingly close to figuring things out. But it certainly doesn’t show in the standings, as they tie for the MAC’s worst overall record at 1-4.

Late-game execution is key, and it’s something Akron hasn’t seen come to fruition this year. The Zips dropped consecutive overtime games, falling in four overtime fashion to Indiana in Week 4 and losing to winless Buffalo at home last week in the extra period. Both of those games were highly winnable, especially the Indiana one. Against the Hoosiers, Akron strategically set up a 32-yard game-winning field goal attempt for the win, but the attempt hooked left and forced the Zips into an elongated overtime bout. Against the Bulls, Akron fumbled in Buffalo territory in the final six minutes of the contest.

NCAA Football: Akron at Indiana
Akron missed a 32-yard field goal at the end of regulation which would have handed the Zips their first win over a Big Ten team since 2018.
Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Akron saw one other win slip out of its hands in the opening week in a trip to Philadelphia. The Zips squandered a 21-7 lead and failed to score in the second half of a 24-21 defeat. All Akron needed was one second half score, but the Zips resorted to punting four times and threw one costly interception to hand the Owls a narrow victory.

The Zips are so close, and this was a theme prevalent in the 2022 season as well. Akron posted a 1-7 record in MAC play yet came within one score in five of those losses. The only definitive defeat Akron has seen this year was a 35-3 thrashing from a currently ranked and undefeated Kentucky team. But otherwise, the Zips seem just as close to 4-1 as they are to 1-4. Late-game execution needs to be a priority for the program which has been outscored 62-24 in second halves this year. Conservely in first halves, Akron has a 51-45 upper hand in the scoring department.

Unfortunately for Akron, it will search for these wins without starting quarterback DJ Irons who tore his ACL against Buffalo on Saturday. The Zips still exhibit experience at the quarterback position in Jeff Undercuffler Jr., a longtime FCS starter who earned two starts for Akron at the conclusion of the 2022 season.

Toledo needs defensive improvement to repeat

Miami (OH). Ohio. Toledo.

There seems to be a clear-cut big three in the MAC right now when it comes to conference title contenders. All three of the aforementioned teams possess 4-1 records and ride 4-game win streaks at the moment.

Toledo entered the season as the reigning league champion and the favorite for the 2023 season, returning a heap of talent ranging from quarterback Dequan Finn to wide receiver Jerjuan Newton to three All-MAC talents in the secondary.

The Rockets’ Finn-led offense has been dynamic, increasing its points per game output from 31.3 points per game in 2022 to 40.8 points per game (11th in FBS) through five games in 2023, and that unit is sporting a MAC championship caliber look at the moment. Finn has thrown multiple touchdowns in four contests this year, adding three touchdowns with his legs as the conference’s most prolific rusher from the quarterback position. And the running game dominance extends beyond the quarterback, as Peny Boone ranks second in the MAC with 515 rushing yards, producing 447 in his last three outings along to spearhead the FBS’s ninth ranked ground attack.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 03 MAC Championship - Toledo vs Ohio
Toledo allowed under 23 points per game in 2022, which was the team’s second-best scoring defense since 2016.
Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

But for as adept as the Rockets have been offensively, concerns are certainly developing on the defensive side of the ball. Toledo allowed 24 first half points to Western Michigan and played from behind for a good portion of the afternoon in Week 4’s 49-31 MAC opener. Up until that point, Western Michigan produced just 34 points in its first three outings of 2023. In Week 5, the Rockets seemed on track to fix these defensive woes with a strong start. But remnants of the Western Michigan game came back to bite as they allowed 26 second half points to a Northern Illinois team that scored 36 combined points in its three prior matchups.

Where teams are thriving most against Toledo is in the run game. Western Michigan posted 236 yards on the Rockets defense, guided by freshman tailback Jalen Buckley’s 196-yard outburst. Northern Illinois saw similar results, tallying 186 rushing yards as a unit led by Antario Brown’s 152 yards on a 9.5 average. Toledo is simply allowing running backs to get too explosive out of the backfield, shedding tackles at the initial levels and breaking through to the secondary.

In MAC play, Toledo’s defense needs to produce more routine stops. The Rockets have relied heavily on turnovers, securing five across the past two games where they allowed an aggregate 64 points. With all of the MAC talent in the secondary, it’s no surprise Toledo’s passing defense ranks top 30 in the FBS. But in order for the Rockets to thrive in MAC play going forward, limiting the run is a priority. Sporting the 90th ranked run defense in the FBS, there’s only so much weight that can be put on the offense and the team cannot afford to embroil itself into high-octane shootouts on a weekly basis.