The #23rd ranked Toledo Rockets (11-1, 8-0 MAC) are playing the Miami RedHawks (10-2, 7-1 MAC) in the MAC Championship Game this Saturday, December 2nd, at Ford Field in Detroit. They are 60 minutes away from being the first team to defend their MAC Title since Northern Illinois did it in 2012.
The Rockets are nearly undefeated with their only loss to Illinois. The Illini kicked a 29-yard field goal to win with five seconds left in the game. This season has been much better to this point than the 2022 campaign which ended in a MAC Championship.
That team had many of the same pieces including quarterback Dequan Finn, running backs Jacquez Stuart and Peny Boone, wide receiver Jerjuan Newton, linebacker Dallas Gant and safety Maxen Hook.
The 2022 offense was not as dominant on the ground as Toledo is this season, but the passing game was just as good, despite Finn missing two games. He was second in the MAC with 23 touchdown passes and second in the MAC with 12 interceptions. Backup Tucker Gleason wasn’t nearly as efficient but still threw for eight touchdowns in the two and a half games he played meaningful time in. By contrast, the running game wasn’t nearly at the level that it has been this season. Jacquez Stuart had the majority of the carries and was good, just not great. Finn ran for more than 600 yards and led the Rockets in touchdowns with 9. Peny Boone was the change-of-pace back last season but ran for only 3.8 yards per carry. That number is 7.4 this year.
They started the season by outscoring their opponents 92-10. It was an impressive start by both sides of the ball, but this team was led by their defense.
They held opponents to 326 total yards per game (first in the MAC) and that includes a 77-21 drubbing at the hands of Ohio State. The Buckeyes put up 763 total yards, more than double the end-of-year average. Vince Kehres, a former Mount Union head coach, was in his third season at Toledo and got the defense clicking. The Rockets held their opponents under the Brian Ferentz line (or 25 points) in nine of 14 games.
Defensive end Desjuan Johnson finished his senior season with four sacks in five games and was a seventh-round selection by the Las Angeles Rams in the 2023 NFL Draft. Linebacker Dyontae Johnson also found his way onto the New York Giants practice squad as an undrafted free agent after 102 tackles was second on the team. Safety Nate Bauer and linebacker Jamal Hines played their final season with the Rockets and paired with returning players like linebacker Dallas Gant and cornerback Quinyon Mitchell, they made their opponent's lives difficult.
The Rockets opened their season by destroying LIU and UMass, but that changed in Columbus. They were stomped by Ohio State and lost to San Diego State on a touchdown in the last minute. That SDSU team had the #34 defense per ESPN’s SP+ and played a very specific brand of football.
Toledo got back on track after two losses by starting 3-0 in MAC play. Central Michigan and Northern Illinois ended up the bottom two in the MAC West, but Kent State was the reigning MAC East Champ. Kent jumped out to a 21-0 lead, but Toledo regained their footing and stormed back to a 52-31 win.
Buffalo was up next and also 3-0 in MAC play. The game was billed as a potential MAC Championship Game preview and Toledo entered the fourth quarter up 27-10. Buffalo scored 24 unanswered thanks in part to two INTs and a forced turnover-on-downs. Dequan Finn was hurt on a Hail Mary pass that was intercepted.
Tucker Gleason would run the offense a week later, but the second-half defense beat Eastern Michigan. The Rocket defense forced three punts, gave up one touchdown, forced a turnover-on-downs and a game-sealing interception sealed the win. Gleason was good, but not as effective as Finn when he saw the field.
Ball State put up a fight and had a 21-14 third quarter lead, but Toledo once again found a way through to secure a berth in the MAC title game late in the contest. Finn returned for this game and threw for 301 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winner with under two minutes remaining.
From this point on, the Rockets managed their health to be as healthy as possible for the MAC Championship Game.
Tucker Gleason started at quarterback in the Battle of I-75 and it was a wild one. A punt return touchdown put the Rockets in another hole, 21-0 early in the second quarter. They were able to close the gap to 21-14 before the half, and Toledo finally got in gear with 10 minutes left in the game. They scored back-to-back touchdowns to change a 34-21 game to 35-34 in their favor. The last touchdown left less than a minute in the game but objectively bad tackling allowed Ta’ron Keith to score from 42 yards away to give BG the huge upset.
Both Gleason and Finn played against WMU in the battle of the backups, as Western Michigan was saving eligibility on their starting quarterback and played a backup at home. The Broncos would win an inconsequential game.
Then, it was time for the big battle with the Ohio Bobcats, who were looking to score their first championship since the 1960s.
It would be the Rockets who would walk out with the trophy, however, overcoming 11 penalties to win the MAC Championship game over the Ohio Bobcats without their star QB Kurtis Rourke. Toledo’s offense did enough, but the defense suffocated Ohio’s third-string quarterback CJ Harris and held running back Sieh Bangura to fewer than three yards per rush. Jacquez Stuart scored on the opening possession on a 29-yard touchdown run. Ohio would answer a few drives later, but when Toledo kicked a field goal before halftime to break the tie, the game was effectively over. Ohio moved the ball into Toledo territory twice in the second half, but never past the 38.
They face another backup quarterback Saturday against the Miami RedHawks. Brett Gabbert had a brutal injury during their initial matchup in October. Luckily for the RedHawks, Aveon Smith is familiar with the offense and has run it for long stretches in the past, but now he has to do it against the reigning champs on Saturday.