The Toledo Rockets (3-1) beat the Western Michigan Broncos (1-3) by a final score of 49-31 in a shootout that caught everyone by surprise. Western Michigan’s offensive coordinator Billy Cosh can certainly script an opening drive, and had the Broncos moving extremely fast to score on the first drive.
Toledo receiver Jerjuan Newton caught two touchdown passes in the next three Toledo drives and the Rockets took the early lead back, 14-7. The rest of the first half was all Western Michigan.
Cornerback Keni-H Lovely forced a fumble, recovered it and ran it back to the house for the tying score.
Stellar running back Jalen Buckley busted a 33-yard run for another touchdown. Western Michigan would add a field goal before the half and take the game to halftime with a 24-14 lead.
TO. THE.— Western Michigan Football (@WMU_Football) September 23, 2023
Jalen Buckley's 2nd TD of the day gives the Broncos a 21-14 lead! pic.twitter.com/GnUayWdo7q
No one saw it coming and it looked like Western Michigan had the game under control. How did this game turn into an 18-point loss after leading by 10 at halftime?
What Decided the Game
Western Michigan had three second-half turnovers that let Toledo back into the game and put the game away. One was fairly inconsequential, WMU fumbled the ball to Toledo but four plays later they fumbled it back. The other two were huge.
On Toledo’s first drive of the second half, starting quarterback Dequan Finn was tackled along the sideline, but never got up. The replay angles didn’t show anything obvious but he was carted off the field in a seated upright position. He did not return.
After the fumble on the second drive, backup Tucker Gleason found his groove. The Rockets started on their own 12 and drove the length of the field with 84 yards passing finishing with Newton’s third receiving touchdown. It was a great effort to break the plane of the endzone.
The next WMU drive lasted one play. Toledo linebacker Jalen Riven came from around the blind side and knocked the ball out of quarterback Treyson Bourguet’s hand as he brought the ball back to throw. Toledo recovered and had a short field to score and take the lead.
Both teams briefly forgot how to play defense and traded touchdowns for the next two drives, Toledo ultimately maintaining their lead 35-31. The Western Michigan touchdown drive wasn’t easy, but a reverse flea flicker was initially ruled a touchdown. Then it was ruled short of the goal line, I would still love to see the view they had, and after penalties were enforced, WMU had the ball at the 15. They would punch it in eventually to retake the lead.
However, that was the end of the good times for the Broncos. On the second play of their next drive they ran one of the worst halfback passes you will ever see.
Running back Zahir Abdus-Salaam threw the ball on the run, ill-advised for a quarterback unless necessary, to Austin Hence. Hence did have a step on his defender but the pass was so woefully underthrown it was an easy interception for safety Emmanuel McNeil-Warren. The Rockets converted the turnover to points just three plays later on a 20-yard Peny Boone touchdown run.
That made the game an 11-point game and the Broncos were pressing after that. They could not recover and Toledo would cruise with good field position to the win.
Stats That Tell the Story
When writing the preview, I pointed out that the Toledo run game would do well here. Apparently, that was an understatement. Peny Boone ran wild for the Rockets. He had 24 carries for 211 yards and two touchdowns. The Broncos continue to be pushed around at the point of attack and Boone was the beneficiary of that this week. Early in the game when Toledo was having trouble with turnovers, three came from passes. It almost seemed silly to not keep feeding Boone.
The Toledo defense made second-half adjustments that really got to the Bronco offense. They forced two turnovers and were gifted another on the halfback pass, but outside of that they cut the Broncos yards per play from a pretty good 5.2 to 4.7. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it was more than that in the rushing yards per rush, which is how Western Michigan wants to move the football.
On top of keeping WMU in check, the defense handed fantastic field position to their offense with a great running back and a capable backup quarterback. Their average starting field position in the second half was their own 45. The good field position was turned into points. In their nine drives, the Rockets created six scoring opportunities and averaged 5.8 points in those opportunities. That’s almost a touchdown every time. The scoring efficiency Toledo displayed was impressive and ruthless.
This game was incredibly messy.
Each team had four turnovers. Before leaving the game, Finn threw two interceptions to transfer safety Tate Hallock. Finn never saw him on the first one, below, and couldn’t put the ball where he wanted on the second. Hallock stepped in front of the receiver and picked it off.
Jalen Buckley was the engine of the Bronco offense again and he showed again that he is going to be a problem for MAC defenses. The Rocket's front seven is good, probably the best in the MAC, and the Western Michigan offensive line and Buckley shredded them for 190 yards on 29 carries with two touchdowns. He’s a big play machine that’s always moving forward. He’s a joy or a terror to watch depending on your fandom.
Important Going Forward
Two big things happened for Toledo in this game:
- They got the win and they are 1-0 in the MAC.
- Dequan Finn is hurt and not being able to get off the field under his own power isn’t a good sign.
Gleason played a decent amount in 2022 and isn’t new to starting games. The offense changes a bit as his speed at quarterback isn’t quite what Finn has. Gleason still runs well, he ran for 106 yards against Bowling Green on 17 carries.
Excellent cornerback Quinyon Mitchell also left the game in the first quarter and I don’t think he returned. He made the one tackle on the play he was injured on and that’s all he has in the stat sheet. Devin Maddox looked to have a lower-body injury after a kick return, and didn’t register a touch after that point.
Toledo may have paid a heavy price for this win.
Western Michigan gets a moral victory. They weren’t expected to be in this game and they definitely were, but they gave it away with sloppy play. The Broncos need to clean that up but one year after a roster reset under a new coach could look much worse than this. They will probably be in most games the rest of the season, but struggle to close them out, much like today.
It’s hard to hold the defense accountable for 49 points even if it’s a really high number. Toledo was held to 14 at half, then the offense put the defense in some terrible positions. Three of the five touchdowns the Rockets scored started at the WMU 35, 24 and 18-yard lines. The defense is still allowed to make plays in those situations, but two turnovers and a turnover on downs allowed that to happen.
Western Michigan heads home to play Ball State in a week. Ball State has been outscored by 30, 42 and 37 in their three losses this season. Their lone win was 45-7 against FCS Indiana State.
Toledo stays home and hosts the Northern Illinois Huskies, who can’t quite decide what they are. They beat ACC Boston College in the season opener, but lost to FCS Southern Illinois the next week and have failed to score more than 14 points since. Toledo should hold them to 11 points, their favorite number.