Western Michigan hosts Toledo in a key game for the race to win the MAC West on Thursday night. The Rockets are the defending MAC champion but are 3-4 through seven games and have to work to do in order to get back to a bowl. The Broncos have already matched last year’s win total, recording a 6-2 mark through the first eight contests.
After losing seven games in coach Jason Candle’s first two years, Toledo has lost four through seven matchups in 2018. Although this program is off to a slow start, the upcoming schedule allows coach Candle’s team an opportunity to improve its standing in the MAC West. The Rockets have five games left, including Thursday night’s matchup in Kalamazoo, along with a road trip to Northern Illinois on Nov. 7. Even if Candle’s team loses those two contests, matchups against Ball State, Kent State and Central Michigan provide a favorable path to six victories. Both sides of the ball have contributed to the slow start, but Candle and his staff still have a lot of promising pieces to work with over the final weeks of the season.
Western Michigan was one of three teams eligible for a bowl bid that did not reach the postseason last fall. That disappointment has likely fueled coach Tim Lester’s team in 2018, as the Broncos enter Thursday night’s matchup with a six-game winning streak. After a 6-6 debut at his alma mater last fall, Lester has this program squarely in the mix to win the division title, especially with three out of the next four games at home. Western Michigan’s only losses came in non-conference play, losing to Syracuse 55-42 and Michigan 49-3.
Toledo holds a 42-30 series edge over Western Michigan. The Rockets have won six out of the last eight meetings against the Broncos.
Toledo at Western Michigan
Kickoff: Thursday, Oct. 25 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Western Michigan -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Toledo’s Passing Attack
Standout quarterback play and a productive passing game is usually a staple of Toledo’s offense. However, the Rockets’ passing attack has been unable to find full lift off this season. Through seven contests, Toledo ranks eighth in the MAC in passing offense (221.1 ypg) and has tossed 18 touchdowns to five interceptions. However, a deeper look at the numbers shows signs of concern, as the Rockets rank 65th in passing S&P and 120th in passing marginal efficiency. The explosive plays through the air are still coming, but Candle’s offense needs more consistency from its passing game. The offensive line also shares blame, as this unit has allowed 21 sacks in 2018.
Adding to the uncertainty surrounding Toledo’s offense is the quarterback position. Mitchell Guadagni started the first four games but suffered an injury against Fresno State and did not start the following matchup against Bowling Green. Illinois transfer Eli Peters started the contest versus the Falcons, with Guadagni returning for the last two games. However, in last week’s loss to Buffalo, both quarterbacks saw extensive time.
For the season, Guadagni has completed 57.8 percent of his passes for 913 yards and 11 touchdowns to just three interceptions. He’s also the team’s leading rusher with 378 yards on 72 attempts. Peters has connected on 40 of 88 passes for 564 yards and six scores.
When Toledo’s quarterbacks have time to throw, they have one of the top receiving corps in college football at their disposal. Diontae Johnson (24 catches), Cody Thompson (19) and Jon’Vea Johnson are one of the top trios in the nation and capable of delivering big plays every time they touch the ball.
Western Michigan has had good success (18 sacks) in getting to the quarterback but ranks ninth in the MAC in pass efficiency defense. Will Guadagni or Peters provide steady play to get Toledo’s offense on track on Thursday night?
2. Western Michigan’s Ground Game Versus Toledo’s Defense
It’s no secret what Western Michigan wants to do on offense. The Broncos have 340 rushing attempts to just 244 pass attempts this season. In last week’s win over Central Michigan, Lester’s team attempted only nine passes, as the ground game pounded the Chippewas’ defense for 305 yards. Center John Keenoy – one of the MAC’s top linemen – leads the way for this group up front.
Quarterback Jon Wassink is a capable runner, but the bulk of the carries on Thursday night will go to LeVante Bellamy and Jamauri Bogan. This duo has combined for 1,279 yards and 14 touchdowns through eight contests. Bellamy leads the team with 821 yards, but Bogan tops the touchdown charts with nine scores. Both players will see their share of opportunities against a Toledo defense ranked seventh in the MAC against the run. The Rockets have allowed 188.9 rushing yards a game and surrendered 20 overall rushing touchdowns this season. Additionally, this unit has allowed at least 186 rushing yards in five out of its last six games.
When Wassink puts the ball in the air, the junior has developed a nice rapport with freshman Jayden Reed (38 catches for 551 yards), while D’Wayne Eskridge and Michigan transfer Drake Harris round out the other key targets on the outside.
This matchup likely comes down to how well Toledo can stop Bellamy and Bogan on the ground. Can the Rockets slow down Western Michigan’s rushing attack and force Wassink to win this one through the air?
3. Don’t Forget About Toledo’s Ground Game
While Western Michigan’s prolific ground game deserves its share of credit, don’t overlook the deep stable of running backs on Candle’s sideline. Toledo ranks third in the MAC in rushing offense, with Shakif Seymour (355), Kentucky transfer Bryant Koback (335) and Art Thompkins (186) headlining a deep and talented group of options.
Considering the uncertainty at quarterback, Toledo needs to get its ground game to take some pressure off its signal-callers. Western Michigan’s defense ranks sixth in the MAC versus the run and is giving up 4.4 yards per rush. The Broncos have also given up four rushes of 40 yards or more this season. All five of Toledo’s offensive linemen weigh in over 280 pounds, while Western Michigan’s defensive front averages 260 pounds among its projected four starters. This matchup represents a good opportunity for the Rockets to establish the run, setting up opportunities for big plays on play-action downs to a standout group of receivers.
If you like offense, then this matchup on Thursday night should be high on your viewing list. These two teams are the MAC’s highest-scoring offenses through Week 8 and rank near the bottom of the league in defense. With a win, Western Michigan would move one step closer to claiming the MAC West title. Toledo is also still in the mix to win the division, but Candle’s team has already lost two games in league play and might have too many question marks to repeat as conference champions. The Rockets will move the ball and should connect on a few big plays in the passing game. However, Western Michigan’s ground game will be tough to contain, as Lester’s team uses it to pound away late for a close victory.
Prediction: Western Michigan 34, Toledo 31
(Top photo by Gary Shook, courtesy of WMU Athletics)