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2023 MAC Football Week 4 Game Preview: Western Michigan Broncos at Toledo Rockets

The first game of the MAC league campaign is set to kick off in the Glass Bowl, with the Broncos traveling to face the Rockets.

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

Jason Candle, one of the league’s longest-tenured coaches, will coach against the third Western Michigan head coach of his tenure on Saturday afternoon, as Lance Taylor will take the opposite sideline. In his first full season Candle coached against PJ Fleck’s 2016 Bronco squad, then outlasted the Tim Lester Era, and now faces Taylor in his first season in Kalamazoo. Overall, Candle and the Rockets are 4-3 against the Broncos and are heavy favorites at home to open conference play.

Western Michigan is reviewing the film of a beatdown at Iowa last week. A game that was 14-10 in Iowa’s favor got away from the Broncos in the third and fourth quarters. Penalties took points off the board and the Iowa offensive line overpowered the Western Michigan front seven.

Toledo’s defense secured the win at home against San Jose State. The Spartans opened a 10-0 lead with the touchdown coming on a short field. The Rocket offense was able to break the shutout before halftime with their own 18-play, 98-yard drive. The teams traded third-quarter touchdowns, and then Toledo cornerback Chris McDonald took advantage of a route miscommunication to score on a pick-six. That made the score 21-17, the final.

Toledo gets to stay home while they ride a two-game win streak as they host the Broncos. The defending MAC Champions officially start their title defense now. The Rockets enter the game as heavy favorites. Can the Broncos throw a wrench in the works?

Game notes

  • Time and date: Saturday, September 23rd, 2023 at 1:30 p.m. Eastern time
  • Network: ESPN+ (A valid subscription is required.)
  • Location: Glass Bowl in Toledo, Ohio
  • Gambling considerations: Toledo is favored by 21 points and the over/under is set at 54, per DraftKings Sportsbook.
  • All-time series: Toledo leads the all-time series 45-32, including four of the last six.
  • Last meeting: Western Michigan won the 2022 game at home in the final week of the regular season, 20-14.

When Western Michigan has the ball:

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Who is going to start for the Broncos at quarterback? That’s been the first question for the Broncos in every one of their games this season.

Jack Salopek had a solid opener against an FCS team and struggled in the first half against Syracuse. Hayden Wolff and Treyson Bourguet saw action at Syracuse, but in Iowa, Bourguet got the start and played most of the game. How do you evaluate the performance against one of the best defenses in the nation?

Gathering 124 passing yards on 5-of-16 attempts isn’t setting the world on fire, but only Salopek got another crack at the Hawkeye defense and it was pretty clear who the better option was for the remainder of the game. Bourguet showed the ability to run and avoid the negative play, but not much went right for the Broncos.

Western Michigan has had success running the ball this season with running back Jalen Buckley or the quarterback. Most of that success came against FCS Saint Francis, but it’s definitely the strength of the offense. The Rockets have allowed their opponents to move the ball on the ground this season, but they have made the bend and don’t break defense work for them. The Rockets have limited the big plays and forced opponents to go on long drives to score.

Western Michigan passes like a service academy. They’re not efficient, but when they connect it’s a big play. It’s not quite service academy passing (have you seen new look Army this year?), but they’re coming off a game where their average completion went for 25 yards. Toledo’s defense enforces that trend. They have held opponents to low efficiency, but if the Rockets are going to get beat, it’s going to be in the air.

If the Rockets force the Broncos into passing situations consistently, the Broncos are in for a long game.

Everywhere you look on the Toledo defense there’s a playmaker. Judge Culpepper already has four sacks on the defensive line, linebacker Dallas Gant is a tackle machine and Quinyon Mtichell has broken up six passes already. Western Michigan’s issues at quarterback have hampered what I think is a good receiver room with Kenneth Womack, Jehlani Galloway and the ultra-reliable tight end Austin Hence. On paper, Toledo holds the edge in this matchup.

When Toledo has the ball:

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

Dequan Finn has been solid for the Rockets throwing the ball so far this season but the strength of their offense lies in the run game. They are second in the MAC in yards per attempt and lead the MAC with seven touchdowns. The Western Michigan defensive front got pushed around by Iowa’s offensive line and gave Toledo a blueprint. Iowa’s run game is a power run game that Toledo won’t replicate completely.

The rest of the matchup isn’t as clear. Western Michigan creates havoc plays on defense, but Toledo has been pretty good at staying ahead of the chains. Toledo hasn’t been explosive so far this year, and that has been a major weakness for the Broncos. Does that change against a defense prone to breakdowns? It only takes one or two big plays to make a good offensive day a great offensive day.

The Broncos haven’t been in enough passing situations as a defense, and they’ve been fire and ice in those situations. They get off the field about an average number of times relative to all of FBS football, but when they don’t it’s a huge play for the offense.

Toledo running backs Peny Boone and Jacquez Stuart are looking at efficient afternoons. Toledo also uses Finn to move the ball on the ground which complicates what Western wants to do. Western Michigan’s aggressive tendencies can catch them out of position. Western Michigan blitzed a safety and two standing defenders on the defensive left side against Iowa late in the second quarter. It’s almost like Iowa knew it was coming and a screen pass went right where the defenders came from and scored.

The Western Michigan defense didn’t have linebacker Boone Bonnema last week against Iowa and defensive end Marshawn Kneeland went down late in the Iowa game with a lower-body injury. Demari Roberson is improving each week at linebacker as on the job training continues for a young Bronco defense.


Toledo is the better team. Their quarterback is an established player in the MAC that is capable of getting the ball to playmakers in the skill positions and making it happen himself. Their defense is littered with such talent, and their scheme is solid.

The Broncos are still trying to figure out their personnel groups to get the most out of the offense and defense. The Rockets will score points, but I think the Bronco offense doesn’t look hopeless here.

Western Michigan 17
Toledo 35