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2023 MAC Bowl Season Round-Up: Best game, best players, all-bowl team

Ohio and Northern Illinois score a pair of victories in a 2-4 finish for the conference, as Rickey Hunt and Kanon Woodill shine on the grand stage.

NCAA Football: Myrtle Beach Bowl-Georgia Southern at Ohio David Yeazell-USA TODAY Sports

We’re in the dog days of January, which means it’s time to wait seven calendar months before another college football kickoff graces our television screens.

The 2023 season officially concluded Monday, Jan. 8 when Michigan toppled Washington for its first national championship of the 21st century. Roughly one week prior, the MAC football season wrapped up in Tucson, AZ when Toledo and Wyoming settled their crunch-time duel out in the desert.

The MAC participated in six bowls this year, claiming a 2-4 record. The conference won the Bowl Challenge Cup for best bowl record in 2022 with a 4-2 mark, but that trophy now travels to Big Ten country after the fellow Midwest-oriented conference finished 6-4 this season.

Ohio and Northern Illinois were the conference’s lone victors, while four other programs saw otherwise successful seasons come to a bitter close. Now, we reflect on the highlights of the 2023 MAC bowl season, picking superlatives and an All-Hustle Belt Bowl Team to officially put a bow on the best time of year for college football fans:

Ten-word summaries

  • Myrtle Beach Bowl: Ohio 41, Georgia Southern 21

Ohio defense pitches first half shutout. Rickey Hunt five touchdowns.

  • Avocados from Mexico Cure Bowl: Appalachian State 13, Miami (OH) 9

Thirteen total fumbles, some of the wettest conditions you’ll see.

  • Camellia Bowl: Northern Illinois 21, Arkansas State 19

Huskies’ fake field goal works. Arkansas State’s onside kick doesn’t.

  • 68 Ventures Bowl: South Alabama 59, Eastern Michigan 10

Eastern Michigan and the terrible, horrible, no good, bad day.

  • Quick Lane Bowl: Minnesota 30, Bowling Green 24

Minnesota’s ground domination prevents MAC from 2023 Big Ten win.

  • Barstool Sports Arizona Bowl: Wyoming 16, Toledo 15

Wyoming wins Craig Bohl’s last game on clutch field goal.

Best game: Arizona Bowl — Wyoming 16, Toledo 15

NCAA Football: Arizona Bowl-Toledo at Wyoming
Wyoming kicker John Hoyland was carried off the field after kicking the game-winning field goal to defeat Toledo in the Arizona Bowl.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It doesn’t get more thrilling than a bowl game decided on the final play. Such was the case of the 2023 Barstool Sports Arizona Bowl in Tucson, which presented an intriguing matchup between an 11-win Toledo squad and the best Wyoming team since the mid-90s. The matchup was low-scoring, yet simultaneously filled with immense action from start to finish.

In the first quarter, Toledo scored in the most unorthodox of fashions, as quarterback Tucker Gleason delivered a screen to running back Jacquez Stuart. However, the ball tipped of Stuart’s hands and landed into the gloves of center Devan Rogers, who sprinted toward the end zone and finished with a celebratory dive to cap off a 29-yard score. The referees were indecisive about the play’s legality but ultimately ruled it illegal touching on Rogers. Toledo threw an interception on the next play — a pivotal sequence which would prove costly later.

The Rockets were in control for the majority of the contest, holding a 15-6 advantage entering the fourth quarter — boosted by an 80-yard rushing touchdown from Stuart and a safety forced by Esean Carter. But Wyoming’s grit was on full display, as quarterback Evan Svoboda replaced the injured starter Andrew Peasley to lead a fourth quarter touchdown drive. The Cowboys’ defense forced a clutch stop to set up one final possession trailing 15-13, and Svoboda matriculated his team down the field until reaching the Toledo 7-yard line. John Hoyland sunk a 24-yard field goal at the buzzer — his third of the contest — to clinch the Arizona Bowl for Wyoming and secure the program’s winningest season in 27 years. Hoyland won MVP honors as the Cowboys sent head coach Craig Bohl into retirement with a monumental victory in Tucson.

Offensive player of bowl season: Rickey Hunt, RB, Ohio

NCAA Football: Myrtle Beach Bowl-Georgia Southern at Ohio
Ohio RB Rickey Hunt scored five touchdowns in the Myrtle Beach Bowl, tying the Bobcats’ program record with four single-game rushing touchdowns.
David Yeazell-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into the Myrtle Beach Bowl, the most pressing question asked, where was Ohio’s offense going to come from? Starting quarterback Kurtis Rourke was in the transfer portal, second-string quarterback CJ Harris was sidelined for the remainder of the year with a medical condition. Other notable absences included Ohio’s top two running backs Sieh Bangura and O’Shaan Allison and two of the top three wide receivers, Miles Cross and Tyler Walton.

Enter Rickey Hunt. Prior to the Myrtle Beach Bowl, the true freshman obtained 19 rushing yards on six carries all year long — all in a late September blowout win over Bowling Green. Given the circumstances of a depleted depth chart, Ohio had to unearth talent which was sidelined all year long, and that Saturday afternoon in Conway, SC happened to be Hunt’s breakout party. The young running back scorched the Georgia Southern defense with 115 yards on 17 carries. But most importantly, Hunt couldn’t stop appearing in the end zone. He totaled five touchdowns in an MVP performance, scoring four as a rusher and an additional on a spectacular one-handed reception. Responsible for every Ohio touchdown, Hunt tied the Myrtle Beach Bowl scoring record and guided the Bobcats to a 41-21 victory — their fifth consecutive bowl win and second under head coach Tim Albin.

Defensive player of bowl season: Bradley Weaver/Vonnie Watkins, DE, Ohio

NCAA Football: Arizona Bowl-Wyoming at Ohio
Ohio DE Vonnie Watkins was one of two Bobcats to record multiple sacks in the Myrtle Beach Bowl victory.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio’s Myrtle Beach Bowl victory was significant for two seasons. For one, it was the Rickey Hunt show when the Bobcats possessed the ball. Secondly, it was validation of how dominant the Bobcats’ defense was all season long.

Ohio finished fourth in the FBS in yards allowed per game and sixth in scoring defense, limiting foes to just 15.8 points on average. Led by defensive coordinator Spence Nowinsky, the Bobcats dominated defensively from Week 0 through mid-December, leveraging their success on that side of the ball to tie their winningest season in program history.

Although the Myrtle Beach Bowl turned into somewhat of a track meet later in the second half, Ohio’s defense set the tone by pitching a first half shutout. The Bobcats won the turnover battle 5-0 by forcing five Georgia Southern miscues on the first eight possessions. And the Eagles required seven possessions before gaining more than 10 yards on a single drive. The on-field masterminds behind this defensive suffocation were Bradley Weaver and Vonnie Watkins. The two defensive ends combined for four sacks and five tackles for loss, asserting their will at the line of scrimmage as Georgia Southern finished with 33 rushing yards on 21 attempts. Honestly, the entire Ohio defense could receive this specific honor, but Weaver and Watkins were the stalwarts who created this foundation for the unit to thrive in Myrtle Beach.

Special teams player of bowl season: Emilio Duran, P, Toledo

NCAA Football: Arizona Bowl-Toledo at Wyoming
Toledo punter Emilio Duran pinned Wyoming inside its own 6-yard line on three occasions in the Arizona Bowl.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Don’t let an incredible punter performance go unappreciated. Had Wyoming shanked the game-winning field goal at the Arizona Bowl, perhaps the MVP award is distributed to a different specialist. Punter Emilio Duran was arguably the most critical player for Toledo in the Arizona Bowl, assisting the Rockets in winning the field position battle all evening.

The freshman punted five times. Three punts landed inside the 6-yard line. Four punts landed inside the 13-yard line. The stats don’t do justice on how effective Duran’s punts were. He only averaged 39.8 yards per punt with a long of 57, but he consistently pinned Wyoming against its own goal line — including on the Cowboys’ final possession, when they started on their own 6. Duran’s contributions to the field position struggle nearly won Toledo the Arizona Bowl, but the defense just needed one more stop to send the Rockets off with their 12th victory.

Play of bowl season: Kanon Woodill sprints for fake field goal TD

This kicker has serious wheels. It was almost like he was shot out of Kanon.

NFL Combine scouts might be interested in Kanon Woodill’s 40-yard dash time after he perfectly executed one of the most thrilling trick plays of bowl season. The Northern Illinois kicker extended the Huskies’ advantage over Arkansas State to two touchdowns in the middle of the second quarter when snagging a flip pass from holder Tom Foley. Once Woodill possessed the ball, it looked like the role he was born to play. The 5’11”, 167 pound kicker flew to the house untouched and even had time to raise his hand in celebratory fashion during the journey to paydirt.

Woodill’s touchdown proved to be the ultimate difference maker in Northern Illinois’ 21-19 Camellia Bowl victory over Arkansas State, which marked the Huskies’ first bowl win since 2011.

All-Hustle Belt Bowl Team

Here are our selections for the most outstanding MAC players this bowl season, according to position or position group:

2023 All-Hustle Belt Bowl Team

Pos. Player College Stats
Pos. Player College Stats
QB Connor Bazelak Bowling Green 21/36, 221 yards, 1 TD
RB Rickey Hunt Ohio 17 rush, 115 yards, 5 total TD
RB Rashad Amos Miami (OH) 33 rush, 180 yards, 1 TD
WR Odieu Hiliare Bowling Green 10 rec, 152 yards, 1 TD
WR Grayson Barnes Northern Illinois 5 rec, 105 yards, 1 TD
WR Jerjuan Newton Toledo 5 rec, 74 yards
TE Harold Fannin Jr. Bowling Green 5 rec, 50 yards
OL Devan Rogers Toledo 1 TD (called back)
OL Parker Titsworth Ohio N/A
OL Christophe Atkinson Ohio N/A
OL Nolan Potter Northern Illinois N/A
OL Nick Rosi Toledo N/A
DL Bradley Weaver Ohio 2 sacks, 3 TFL
DL Vonnie Watkins Ohio 2 sacks, 2 TFL
DL Esean Carter Toledo 1 sack, 1 TFL, 1 safety
DL Raishein Thomas Northern Illinois 6 tackles, 0.5 sack
LB Matt Salopek Miami (OH) 10 tackles, 1 PBU, 1 FR
LB Ty Wise Miami (OH) 12 tackles, 1 sack
LB Bryce Houston Ohio 8 tackles
DB Nate Bauer Toledo 10 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 PBU
DB Javaughn Byrd Northern Illinois 4 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT
DB Walter Reynolds Ohio 7 tackles, 1 INT, 40 yards
DB Yahsyn McKee Miami (OH) 7 tackles, 2 PBU, 1 INT
K Jesus Gomez Eastern Michigan 1/1 FG, long 49, 1/1 XP
P Emilio Duran Toledo 5 punts, 4 inside 15, long 57
RS Jacquez Stuart Toledo 5 KR, 105 yards, long 35