The Toledo Rockets are flying high after a resounding 49-10 win against FCS Norfolk State, and they’ll look to keep the momentum going in their first-ever meeting with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, who likewise secured a Week 1 win — albeit in overtime, and by merely a field goal.
Toledo allowed just a touchdown in the first quarter and a field goal late against Norfolk State, while reaching the end zone twice in each of the first three quarters to lead 28-7 at halftime and 42-7 entering the fourth quarter. The Fighting Irish, on the other hand, led 38-20 after three quarters only to see the Seminoles storm back to close the 18-point gap and force overtime before a 41-yard Jonathan Doerer field goal halted Notre Dame’s scoring drought and put the Irish on top.
Toledo at Notre Dame
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 11 at 2:30 p.m. ET
TV: Peacock Premium
Spread: Notre Dame -16.5
When Toledo Has the Ball
Thanks to 36.5 passing attempts per game in 2020, including 40 or more in three of their six games, the Rockets passed for nearly double their rushing total in 2020. Toledo averaged 325.8 yards per game through the air — the ninth-highest average in FBS last season and the best in the MAC — compared to just over 168.2 per game on the ground. That trend came to a screeching halt on Saturday as Toledo rushed 38 times for 205 yards and four touchdowns, while barely surpassing that total through the air with 236 yards and a single touchdown on 18 passes.
DeQuan Finn and Bryant Koback combined for half of the Rockets’ rushes and the bulk of their yards on the ground, totaling 134 yards and three touchdowns on 18 combined carries. Jacquez Stuart rushed four times for 23 yards and the Rockets’ lone remaining rushing touchdown, with Devin Maddox catching just two passes for 91 yards — 84 of which came on the lone touchdown pass from Carter Bradley, who threw for 183 yards on 8-for-11 passing.
The Fighting Irish defense was a force to be reckoned with in 2020 as Notre Dame was one of just three FBS programs (Army, BYU) to play 12 or more games and allow fewer than 240 total points during the season. That campaign was enough to land then-defensive coordinator Clark Lea the head coaching position at Vanderbilt — his alma mater — which left a vacancy that Notre Dame filled with highly touted defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman from Cincinnati. Freeman’s debut was highly anticipated, and for three quarters on Sunday, the reason was pretty clear. But the Irish’s struggles in the fourth quarter, including in the missed tackle department, offer Freeman a blueprint on some areas to rectify heading into the remainder of the season.
When Notre Dame Has the Ball
Following the graduation of Ian Book, the program’s all-time winningest quarterback, Jack Coan arrived as a graduate transfer from Wisconsin and kept the offense clicking at a high level. Coan’s 366 passing yards on Sunday against Florida State broke the school record for a season opener, a mark previously held by offensive coordinator Tommy Rees. Rees proudly watched from the booth upstairs as Notre Dame’s newest signal-caller notched a career-high four touchdowns against just one interception while completing 26 of his 35 passes.
Despite a key drop that could have prevented overtime, Notre Dame’s rising star tight end Michael Mayer led the way with nine catches for 120 yards and a touchdown, with Kevin Austin Jr. (four rec., 91 yds.) and Kyren Williams (six, 83) each grabbing a touchdown as well. That productivity in the passing game provided a big boost, as Notre Dame could hardly get anything going on the ground against the Seminoles. The Fighting Irish’s star-studded backfield of Williams and Chris Tyree managed less than three yards per carry, combining for 73 yards on 25 carries, with Tyree punching in a short touchdown for the unit’s only score on the ground.
While Toledo was among the nation’s leaders in passing offense, it was the Rockets' rushing defense that excelled in 2020, holding opponents to just 129.2 yards per game to trail only Miami (Ohio) for the MAC lead. That helped to keep Toledo in most games since the defense mustered only nine takeaways — five fumble recoveries and four interceptions — in six games last season, a mark the unit will look to build upon in 2021 with eight of the 11 starters being upperclassmen.
Notre Dame’s season-opening win against Florida State showed many reasons why the Irish quite clearly are once again contenders for the College Football Playoff. They’ll need to clean up some areas — especially on defense with play-calling and shoring up the abundance of missed tackles — but if Freeman can get this unit on the same page and playing hard, the Irish should be just fine going up against a Toledo team coming into town with plenty of its own momentum.
Prediction: Notre Dame 37, Toledo 24
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— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.