Midweek MACtion is back on Tuesday night, as Eastern Michigan and Toledo meet in a key game for positioning within the West Division. The Rockets and Eagles both sit at 2-2 within conference play and another loss could be tough to overcome, especially with both programs owning defeats to Northern Illinois, which sits atop the division with a perfect 4-0 mark in league action. Essentially, the winner of this game likely stays alive for the division crown, while also taking a step forward in the bowl pecking order within the conference.
Eastern Michigan is one of the nation’s toughest jobs, but coach Chris Creighton has brought a level of stability and consistent success since his arrival in 2014. The Eagles have won at least five games in each of the last five full years, including three bowl trips (2016, ‘18 and ‘19). Creighton’s squad went 3-1 in non-conference play, picking up wins over St. Francis (Pa.), UMass and Texas State and dropping a 34-7 matchup at Wisconsin. Eastern Michigan’s 2-2 start in MAC play was headlined by a win over Miami (Ohio) and close losses to Northern Illinois and Ball State (both by seven points). With four games remaining, it’s a safe bet to assume Creighton’s squad can find at least one more win and get bowl eligible once again.
Toledo enters Tuesday night’s matchup with a 4-4 mark, but coach Jason Candle’s squad is just a couple of plays away from a better record. The Rockets lost by three at Notre Dame and dropped one-score matchups to MAC West rivals Northern Illinois (22-20) and Central Michigan (26-23). Candle’s squad needs a lot to go its way, but this team is likely to be favored in each of its remaining matchups – Eastern Michigan, at Bowling Green, at Ohio and Akron – to give it a shot at pushing the Huskies in the West Division.
Toledo holds a 36-12 series edge over Eastern Michigan. The Rockets have won 13 out of the last 14 against the Eagles. Eastern Michigan’s last win at Toledo took place in 1999.
Eastern Michigan at Toledo
Kickoff: Tuesday, Nov. 2 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Toledo -9
When Eastern Michigan Has the Ball
For the most part, putting points on the board hasn’t been an issue for Eastern Michigan this year. Creighton’s group enters Tuesday night’s game ranked second in the MAC in scoring (32.8 ppg) and posted over 30 in the team’s last two matchups (Ball State and Bowling Green). While points have been plentiful, the Eagles could use a little more down-to-down consistency. This group is averaging only 5.6 yards a snap and is tied for seventh in the MAC for the most lost turnovers (10).
The stat sheet shows Eastern Michigan leans slightly towards the run (284 pass attempts vs. 253 rushing attempts), but the strength of this offense comes through the air. Ben Bryant replaced Preston Hutchinson as the team’s No. 1 quarterback for the team’s last six games and has guided the attack to at least 30 points in four of his starts. The Cincinnati transfer has thrown for 1,836 yards and 10 touchdowns overall this year, while leading the MAC in quarterback rating (151.96) and ranking third in per-game production (229.5 ypg). Hassan Beydoun (52 catches) and Dylan Drummond (40) have accounted for just over 53 percent of the team’s receptions, with Zach Westmoreland (12) and Bryson Cannon (17) also working in as key weapons. However, Bryant and his offensive line will face a tough assignment on Tuesday night. Toledo’s defense has recorded 18 sacks and 53 tackles for a loss this fall and ranks first in the MAC in pass efficiency defense. Only one opponent (Notre Dame) has thrown for more than 240 yards against this defense. Also, the Rockets have allowed just three touchdown passes in their last six games.
Eastern Michigan’s ground game has ranked near the bottom of the conference in recent years, and the ’21 season is no different, as Creighton’s group is averaging only 3.3 yards per carry. In matchups against Northern Illinois, Miami (Ohio) and Ball State, the Eagles were held to 51 rushing yards or less in each game. The running back room in Ypsilanti isn’t lacking for talent though, as James Madison transfer Jawon Hamilton paces the offense with 347 yards, with Darius Boone (308) and Samson Evans (133) chipping in.
Toledo’s defense should be the best overall unit Eastern Michigan has faced in MAC play this year. The Rockets are holding teams to just 4.73 yards a snap and 18.3 points a contest. This unit also ranks near the top of the MAC in third-down defense and has allowed only five plays of 40-plus yards.
When Toledo Has the Ball
The Rockets usually rank near the top of the MAC in offensive production, but the 2021 offense is still waiting to achieve full lift-off. Toledo’s offense is averaging just 24.8 points per contest and 5.72 yards per play in MAC games so far this year. The main culprit for the regression on this side of the ball has been the play of the offensive line. Toledo’s front five has had to navigate some injuries but has allowed 29 sacks and 59 tackles for a loss through eight contests. Also, rushers are averaging only 4.5 yards per carry – down from 5.2 in ’19.
While the play up front has been inconsistent, Toledo’s backfield is still one of the best in the MAC. Bryant Koback paces the team in rushing yardage for the fourth straight season, entering Tuesday night’s game with 635 yards and five scores so far this fall. Koback torched Eastern Michigan in previous years, as he gashed this defense for 259 yards in ’19 and posted 149 last year. When Koback needs a break, Jacquez Stuart (164) and Micah Kelly (153) are capable options. Eastern Michigan ranks sixth in the MAC against the run, limiting teams to 4.8 yards per carry through eight matchups and surrendering 184.5 rushing yards a contest. As evidenced by the Eagles’ performances against Northern Illinois (242 rushing yards allowed) and Ball State (200), Koback and the Rockets should find some success here.
In addition to the concerns up front, Toledo’s passing game hasn’t been firing on all cylinders this year. Carter Bradley started the first six games for the Rockets, connecting on 59.5 percent of his passes for 962 yards and four scores. Dequan Finn replaced Bradley as the starter for the last two games and added a running presence to the position (354 yards this year) but has connected on just 23 of 56 pass attempts in that span. When Finn throws, Devin Maddox (26 catches), Isaiah Winstead (21), and Bryce Mitchell (15) form a talented trio on the outside.
Eastern Michigan’s defense has held up better against the pass (second in the MAC in pass efficiency defense), but as a whole, this unit is still allowing 5.6 yards a snap and 24.9 points a contest.
Three of the last four meetings between these two teams were decided by one score, and based upon the first two months of games, another close matchup is likely in store on Tuesday night. Toledo’s ground game should be able to find a healthy amount of running room against Eastern Michigan’s defense, so Creighton’s group has to find ways to get this offense into third-and-long situations or obvious passing downs. The Rockets have the MAC’s top defense, which figures to give Bryant and his receivers plenty of resistance. Toledo's ground game will prove to be too much for the Eagles, but Bryant connects on enough passes to keep this one interesting into the fourth quarter.
Prediction: Toledo 31, Eastern Michigan 24
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