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2023 MAC Football Week 1 Game Preview: Toledo Rockets at Illinois Fighting Illini

Toledo looks to start their title defense campaign against a Big Ten opponent in a strength-on-strength matchup.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 02 ReliaQuest Bowl Photo by Chris Leduc/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Toledo and Illinois football programs have both been around for over 100 years, but they play each other for the first time in history on Saturday.

Although Big Ten-MAC matchups are common in the non-conference part of the college football season, this is just the second time Toledo will play a Big Ten school since 2011. Last year, the future MAC Champion Rockets were beaten soundly 77-21 by the perennially stacked Ohio State Buckeyes— though Dequan Finn had an impressive individual showing.

To start the 2023 season, Toledo has a much more winnable contest against the Fighting Illini on the road in Champaign. The preseason MAC favorites will look to make a statement win against Illinois, who are coming off a solid eight-win season in 2022.

Game Notes

  • Date and time: Saturday, September 2, 2023 at 7:30 p.m. ET
  • Network: Big Ten Network (A valid cable subscription is required for viewing.)
  • Location: Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois
  • Gambling considerations: Illinois is favored by 9.5 points, with an over/under of 45.5, per DraftKings.
  • All-time series: First meeting

Getting to know the Rockets Boca Raton Bowl - Liberty v Toledo Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images

The Rockets are definitely coming off a season to be proud of. They went 9-5 with a MAC Championship and a Boca Raton Bowl win over Liberty. While that is certainly a very solid year, some folks in the Glass City might have even higher expectations this year.

Toledo returns many key players on both sides of the ball and under eighth-year head coach Jason Candle, the team should feel like they can get to double-digits in the win column. With a favorable regular season schedule, running the table is even in the realm of possibilities for Toledo.

The Rockets will need to pull out all the stops to get in the end zone against Illinois’ defense. They’ll be led by an experienced dual-threat quarterback in Dequan Finn.

The fifth-year senior has had quite an ability to find the end zone, racking up 58 touchdowns in the air and on the ground over the last two years. Many of Finn’s highlight reel plays have come during runs — plenty of which are improvised — but he has shown he can get it done in the air too. A big concern for Finn in this matchup is limiting turnovers. He had 12 interceptions and is facing a team which hauled in 24 picks last season and should have a great pass rush in 2023.

Fortunately for Toledo, Dequan Finn will have his top two receivers back from last year to throw to. Jerjuan Newton and Devin Maddox both stand under six feet tall but provide a lot of speed and can get open downfield. Newton and Maddox both averaged more than 14 yards per catch last season. Look for those two to take advantage of a talented but inexperienced Illinois defensive back unit.

The Rockets offensive line had trouble protecting the pass last season which is something to watch for heading into Week 1 in 2023 against a strong Illinois defensive line. The good news is Toledo returns four starters from their O-line group including 2022 first-team All-MAC honoree Nick Rosi.

Toledo also returns starting running back Jacquez Smart who ran for 770 yards on a 5.7 yards per carry clip. He and some of the other running backs should get some carries against Illinois to take some weight off Dequan Finn’s load.

Toledo should have a strong offense, but its defense is what won them a title in 2022. It’s also a huge part of the hype surrounding the 2023 edition of the team. The defensive back unit should be one of the best in the MAC, if not the country. All-MAC first-teamers Quinyon Mitchell (who led the MAC in passes defensed) and Maxen Hook return and should have just as high personal expectations as last year. Fellow all-MAC safety Nate Bauer returns as well, with fifth-year senior CB Chris McDonald also returning to contribute. This experienced and talented group should make it tough for Illinois to succeed in the air Saturday.

The front seven went through more changes this offseason but can still be strong. The Rockets lost both Desjuan Johnson and Jamal Hines, who combined for 12 sacks in 2022, along the defensive front. They’ll need some new faces to pick up some slack on the pass rush but Missouri transfer edge rusher Travion Ford should help with that.

The linebacker group loses a talented Dyontae Johnson from the 2022 squad, but keeps the team’s leading tackler Dallas Gant who will be joined by a couple new starters like Adrian Woliver.

Getting to know Illinois

NCAA Football: ReliaQuest Bowl-Illinois at Mississippi State Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois Football is in a good spot right now, especially considering what the decade was like before the hiring of Brett Bielema two years ago. The Fighting Illini had nine straight losing seasons before the former Wisconsin and Arkansas head coach arrived in Champaign.

After a 5-7 mark in Bielema’s first season, Illinois had a 2022 season that showed real promise for the trajectory of its program. The team finished with eight wins and spent a number of weeks in the AP Top 25. They came so close to beating Big Ten Champion Michigan at the Big House in a defensive battle where the Wolverines hit three fourth quarter field goals to erase a seven-point deficit. The goals for Bielema’s squad this season should be to match last season’s win total and maybe pull off the big win that eluded the team last year. A win over Toledo at home would be a solid start for the men in Orange and Blue.

Illinois loses last year’s QB Tommy DeVito but is hopeful Ole Miss transfer Luke Altmyer can live up to the high recruiting status he once had. He is said to throw the ball downfield well and has good mobility but only has 54 career pass attempts. There’s a learning curve for any new starting QB in the FBS and Toledo’s defense won’t make it any easier on Altmyer.

Altmyer’s main target in the air will likely be Isaiah WIlliams, who led Illinois with 82 catches and 713 yards in 2022. Bielema got running backs and tight ends involved in the passing game last season as well, so expect to see some of that on Saturday.

Illinois’ strength on offense in 2022 was its running game. The team ran for over 2,000 yards but more than 1,600 of those were from Chase Brown who is now in the NFL. Illinois will have to rely on last year’s backup Reggie Love to carry the load. He should have a good offensive line to run behind that includes 2022 All-Big Ten honorable mentions OT Julian Pearl and OG Isaiah Adams. Something that allowed the Fighting Illini to win games was their ability to control the clock. Watch for Bielema to concoct some long methodical drives to try to wear out Toledo’s D.

If Illinois is going to match or top last season’s win total, the defense is going to be the reason why they do it.

Last season, the Fighting Illini led the FBS in scoring defense and also had the most takeaways. The defensive coordinator of that team, Ryan Walters took the Purdue head coaching job, so it will be up to the new defensive coordinator Aaron Henry to lead a unit that will need a few new faces on the field to step up as well.

Illinois lost four starters from last year’s defensive back unit including CB Devon Witherspoon, who was the fifth-overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft. The defensive back unit could still be solid, with a couple of last year’s backups like CB’s Tahveon Nicholson and Tyler Strain now in starter roles.

The linebacker unit returns several important guys from last year like Tarique Barnes who plays on the inside and should come up in the box score with plenty of tackles Saturday.

The D-line should be the strongest part of Illinois’ game this season with defensive ends Jer’Zhan Nwton and Keith Randolph, who combined for 26 tackles-for-loss in 2023 returning to the group. They’ll be joined in the middle by guys like 320-pounder TeRah Edwards and 315 lb. Ohio transfer Denzel Daxon, who should put stress on Toledo’s run game.


This matchup should be a defensive battle all the way through. The over/under at 46 certainly isn’t very high but this game could definitely finish with both teams in the teens.

Toledo has a very experienced offense and is facing an Illinois defensive unit that is talented but also some unproven names that will be seeing lots of game action. Expect Jason Candle to challenge the home team’s defensive backs by asking Dequan Finn to put the ball downfield. With Finn’s ability to move in the pocket, he should be able to create a couple of big plays even with a powerful pass rush coming at him.

Illinois is more prepared to run the ball, with a new quarterback in place and facing such a strong Toledo DB unit. They’ll challenge the Rockets’ interior on the ground with RB’s Reggie Love and Josh McCray getting a number of carries between them.

Toledo, which might be the highest rated MAC team since 2017 Western Michigan, knows how much a win on the road against a Big Ten opponent would do to set the tone for the rest of the season. The experience advantage of the Rockets offense will help them break off a couple of big drives and edge out the Fighting Illini in a low scoring contest.

Prediction: Toledo 20, Illinois 17