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2023 MAC Football Championship Game Preview: Toledo Rockets

The defending MAC Champions are back for more as Toledo looks to do win back-to back titles for the first time since 1970-71.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 24 Toledo at San Diego State Photo by Alan Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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The Toledo Rockets (11-1, 8-0 MAC) are back in the MAC Football Championship game after winning it last year. The Rockets had control of the MAC West all season and clinched the division with two games to go in the year, further solidifying the hold they had.

This will be the eighth appearance Toledo will make in the MAC Football Championship game, with the Rockets holding a 4-3 record in their prior seven appearances. One of those wins was in 2004, when the Rockets took down the RedHawks in the only other instance of these two facing off in the title game. Toledo will be vying for its 13th overall MAC Championship and the third in the Jason Candle era.

Coming into this game, Toledo is about as red-hot as any team in the country. The Rockets are riding an 11-game winning streak, the sixth-longest in the nation, and had 14 players named to all-MAC rosters on Wednesday afternoon— including 10 first-teamers. With a win over Miami, Toledo’s slim New Year’s Six hopes will have hope.

It’s all to play for when the Rockets arrive to Detroit.


The Journey

NCAA Football: Toledo at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into this season, Toledo returned about 77 percent of its production, with expectations to beat Bowling Green, win the MAC, and earn the Group of 5’s bid in the New Year’s Six Bowl.

Toledo was the overwhelming favorite to retain the crown in the preseason, and with an arguably easier schedule ahead of them in 2023, Toledo’s goals were well within reach.

To kick off the year, the Rockets traveled to Illinois to keep the trend of at least one MAC-over-B1G victory. The Fighting Illini were a formidable foe for the Rockets and it took every last second to decide it. After trailing for the majority of the first half, Toledo rattled off 19 unanswered to take a 19-7 lead in the third. They were driving again but a 48-yard pick-six derailed it. Illinois retook the lead after a pair of touchdowns. Then, after a field goal and a one-yard Dequan Finn touchdown with less than three minutes to go, it looked like Toledo had locked up the win. Then, a fourth-down prayer turned into points and the Rockets fell, 30-28.

After that, Toledo needed a palate cleanser. A 71-3 beatdown of Texas Southern where Finn was as close to perfect as he could have been sure helped exorcise the bad tastes.

They needed a get-right game ahead of a matchup with one of the Mountain West’s best in San Jose State. After a slow start, Toledo rallied back to pull within 17-14. Then, the Spartans made a massive mistake which Chris McDonald took advantage and won the game, 21-17.

After starting 2-1, MAC play began against Western Michigan. The Rockets were able to lean on Peny Boone’s 211 yards and two scores en route to a resounding 49-31 win. The first massive test of the Rockets’ MAC slate came the following week against Northern Illinois. Finn outdueled Rocky Lombardi and opened up a 15-point lead in the fourth. NIU came storming back but a failed two-point conversion proved to be the difference.

A reprieve came in the middle of the season with a trip to UMass. The Rockets touted a pair of 100+ yard rushers on the day, including Finn’s 172 and one score. The former MAC rival stood no chance as Toledo out-paced the Minutemen, 41-24.

Toledo had a number of nail-biters on the year and its game at Ball State was no different. It was a defensive battle throughout and neither team really pulled away. Entering the fourth, Toledo was locked in a 3-3 tie. Despite tying it up with a 27-yard field goal, Ball State drove down and retook the lead. Toledo responded with a six-play, 72-yard touchdown drive with Boone breaking the plane with 1:31 to go.

Then, Toledo traveled to Oxford for round one with the Redhawks. The Rockets got off to a commanding 21-3 lead after a pair of Finn touchdown passes and he added another on the ground. Miami took over the third quarter and scored 14 unanswered. The Toledo defense stood tall in the fourth quarter and forced two three-and-outs, three punts, and a fumble to close it out. Toledo and Miami went 11 seasons without facing off and will get to play twice in a six-week span.

Buffalo came to campus and was promptly greeted by a pair of explosive touchdowns to put Toledo up 14-0 after just 2:54 of game time elapsed. The Rockets dominated to a 31-7 lead before a too-little-too-late score by Buffalo. it was more of the same when Eastern Michigan came to visit at Toledo and got out to a 35-0 lead early en route to a 49-23 beatdown to clinch the MAC West.

The Battle of I-75 provided yet another classic. Toledo started off slow and trailed 28-10 at half at Bowling Green. The Rockets clawed back to within three after a pair of touchdowns but BG tacked on a field goal to make it 31-25 midway through the fourth. Then, the fourth down call that was etched in history. Finn found Jacquez Stuart out of the backfield on fourth and two and took it 59 yards for the game-winner.

With the MAC West and Battle of I-75 locked up, Toledo could have coasted against Central Michigan. The Rockets jumped out to a 17-0 lead early thanks to an Odell Beckham, Jr.-like catch from Jaden Dottin. The game was never in doubt as the Rockets brought home a 32-17 win and can focus in on Miami in Detroit.


Players to Watch

RoofClaim.com Boca Raton Bowl - Liberty v Toledo Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images

Toledo does not get back to Detroit without a long list of playmakers and atop that list is dynamic quarterback and MAC Player of the Year, Dequan Finn.

On the year, the third-year starter took a step forward in his development and notched career bests in yards, yards per attempt, completion percentage, and rating. He finished the regular season with 2,384 yards, 21 touchdowns, and completed 65.1 percent of his passes. On the ground, Finn was second on the team with 110 rushes, 530 yards, and six touchdowns. By far, his most dominant performance was his 407-yard, three-touchdown game against Eastern Michigan.

Peny Boone had himself a breakout campaign in 2023, earning MAC Offensive Player of the Year honors. After amassing 439 yards as the team’s fourth rusher last year, Boone took over the running back job with a vengeance. In total, the Maryland transfer has run for 1,359 yards and 15 touchdowns. He’s a mere four yards shy of a top-10 single-season rushing performance in Toledo history and one touchdown away from tying into the top five.

In front of those is the often underappreciated offensive line. Toledo’s line paved the way for Boone’s massive year and has dominated its way to the 12th-best yards per rush in the nation. And, usually, with a mobile quarterback who likes to move around and manipulate the pocket, sacks would come in large numbers. Not this year. Toledo has allowed 10 sacks, tied for the sixth-fewest in the nation.

Out wide, Toledo did not have a single receiver take over. However, they had a pair of receivers in Jerjuan Newton and Junior Vandeross III led the way. Newton paced the way with 570 yards and nine touchdowns off of 43 receptions. Vandeross is right behind him with 505 yards and four scores off of 38 receptions.

On the defensive side of the ball, Toledo has a number of playmakers who have helped the Rockets attain one of the best units in the MAC.

The biggest star on this defense is Nagurski Award Semifinalist Quinyon Mitchell. After leading the MAC in pass breakups in 2022, Mitchell is doing the same with his 16 this year. He’s added 38 tackles. 2.0 TFLs, and an interception. He’s attracted serious NFL Draft attention and is likely looking to make an impact in one of his final games.

As a team, Toledo forced 11 interceptions, led by safety Maxen Hook’s three picks. Behind Mitchell, Chris McDonald recorded eight pass breakups including a pair of interceptions, one of which was that game-winner against San Jose State.

In the front seven, Toledo does lead the MAC in sacks with 34. Judge Culpepper has been a force up front with eight sacks and 10 TFLs. The Penn State transfer even added a forced and recovered fumble in the win over Texas Southern.

Dallas Gant backed up his massive 2022 with another strong year for the Rockets. In total thus far, Gant leads the team with 97 tackles, 9.5 TFLs, a sack, and an interception. His linebacker running mate, Daniel Bolden, has notched 80 tackles, five TFLs, half of a sack, two pass breakups, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery.


Team Statistics

Offense:

  • Scoring Offense: 35.2 points per game (20th in FBS)
  • Passing Offense: 200-for-306 (65.4 percent), 2,632 yards, 25 touchdowns, eight interceptions, 8.6 yards per attempt, 13.2 yards per completion, 219.3 yards per game (74th in FBS)
  • Rushing Offense: 459 rushes for 2,585 yards, 29 touchdowns, 5.6 yards per carry, 211.6 yards per game (eighth in FBS)
  • Red Zone Offense: 47-of-52 (40 touchdowns)
  • First Downs: 255 first downs (122 pass, 111 rush, 22 penalty) (51st in FBS)
  • Conversion Rates: 71-of-151 (47 percent) on third-down; 12-of-20 (60 percent) on fourth-down

Defense:

  • Scoring Defense: 20.4 points per game (28th in FBS)
  • Passing Defense: 192-for-367 (52.3 percent), 2,269 yards, 12 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 189.1 yards per game (23rd in FBS)
  • Rushing Defense: 441 rushes for 1,716 yards, 15 touchdowns, 3.9 yards per carry, 143 yards per game (50th in FBS)
  • Sacks/Tackles for Loss: 34 sacks (t-16th in FBS); 66 tackles-for-loss (t-71st in FBS)
  • Opponent First Downs: 224 first downs (103 pass, 99 rush, 22 penalty) (46th in FBS)
  • Opponent Conversion Rates: 64-of-171 (37.4 percent) on third-down; 11-of-25 (44 percent) on fourth-down

Special Teams:

  • Kicking: 10-for-11 (90.9 percent) (11th in FBS); long of 44 yards (t-114th in FBS)
  • Punting: 41 punts for 1,515 yards, 37 yards per punt (last in FBS)
  • Returning: 36 kick returns, 745 yards, one touchdown, 20.7 yards average (t-50 in FBS); 100 punt returns, 100 yards, 5.6 yards average (102nd in FBS)