As the Toledo Rockets close out the regular season, the theme is simple.
Don't slip up.
The Rockets (7-4, 6-1 MAC) do not control their own destiny in the MAC West, but can earn a division title with a win at Eastern Michigan (2-9, 1-6 MAC) Friday and a Northern Illinois loss to Western Michigan.
Eastern Michigan has little to play for. The Eagles were knocked out of contention long ago and are merely fighting to stay out of the MAC basement. While a win would go a long way toward instilling confidence after head coach Chris Creighton's first season, a surprise win against Buffalo soothed at least a few concerns during another tough year in Ypsilanti.
While Toledo has looked better than Eastern Michigan in nearly every possible way this season, there is precedent for warning the Rockets against a late misstep in MAC play. Toledo finished off its last campaign with a thud, when the Rockets fell to 7-5 against an Akron team that entered the game with just four wins. The uninspiring finish meant Toledo, despite its winning record, spent bowl season at home.
This year's outfit seems better equipped to handle the task - not only due to the warning of the previous year's flop, but thanks to a sustainable offensive attack that has run through the MAC with abandon. The Rockets boast the conference's top total offense and rushing offense, and the second best scoring offense to complement a middle-of-the-pack seventh-ranked defense.
Running back Kareem Hunt continues to exceed even the most generous praise heaped on him, with a 265-yard performance in a 27-20 win against Bowling Green the prior week the latest in his remarkable season. His 8.3 yards per carry are far and away tops in the conference, making second-place Jarvion Franklin's otherwise impressive 5.4-yard average seem pedestrian by comparison.
Eastern Michigan has given little indication it will be able to either slow the Rockets' attack or keep pace with it. The Eagles occupy the MAC's bottom spot in scoring offense, total offense, scoring defense and total defense, giving up 39.9 points per game and scoring just 15.1 on average.
Eastern Michigan's offense did show signs of life in the Eagles' most recent defeat, a 45-30 setback Saturday at Ball State. The Eagles collected 503 total yards - over 200 more than their season average - but three turnovers, stalled red zone drives and a few defensive slips did EMU in.
Freshman quarterback Reggie Bell has had an uneven season, but his 409 passing yards and 101 rushing yards against the Cardinals offered some hope for the future of the program. That, coupled with the 202 rushing yards he amassed in the Eagles' 37-27 win over Buffalo, showed Eastern Michigan may have a player to build around with Bell if all goes right.
Bell's arm will need to do the heavy lifting if EMU hopes to steal a result from Toledo, which has allowed a conference-low 1350 rushing yards over 11 games. The Rockets have successfully put the clamps on the likes of Franklin and Thomas Rawls, but if Bell can operate as a dual-threat weapon, it will test Toledo's vulnerable pass defense, which ranks just below Eastern Michigan's at 12th in the MAC.
Statistically, Toledo would seem to have the upper hand on both sides of the ball, but the Rockets will have to focus on the task at hand to take care of business and stay alive in the MAC title race. With Western Michigan's contest against Northern Illinois starting two hours before Toledo squares off with EMU, the Rockets could conceivably clinch a MAC Championship berth at the final whistle. They don't yet know what fate has in store for them after a season with a few bad breaks and a few good bounces, but if they slip up Friday, fate will not be the one to blame.