Toledo travels to Western Michigan for more midweek MACtion and a crucial game for positioning within the MAC's West Division. Without a clear-cut favorite in the West, every game in a tight division battle is even more important in 2020. Both teams are off to a good start, as Toledo crushed rival Bowling Green 38-3 last Wednesday and the Broncos pounded Akron 58-13.
Getting Toledo back on track was the top priority for coach Jason Candle in 2020. The Rockets won 27 games from 2016-18, including a MAC title in '17. However, the program battled injuries and inconsistent quarterback play in a 6-6 finish last fall. The six-win season marked the first time Toledo missed out on a bowl since 2013. The opener provided good signs for Candle and hope for a turnaround season for the Rockets. Wednesday night's matchup in Kalamazoo represents the first road trip for Toledo in 2020, and Candle's team has to hit the road again next week at Eastern Michigan. While the early road trips in an unusual 2020 season aren't easy, the program gets two crucial matchups — Ball State and Central Michigan — in the Glass Bowl.
Western Michigan coach Tim Lester is 21-18 through 39 games at his alma mater and has guided the program to two bowl trips in that span. The MAC West is wide open at the top, so Lester should have this team in the mix to win the division after falling just short last fall. Lester's team had no trouble with Akron last Wednesday, but the schedule gets tougher starting on Wednesday night with Toledo, followed by games at Central Michigan on Nov. 18 and a later showdown at Ball State on Dec. 12.
Toledo owns a 44-30 series edge over Western Michigan. The Rockets have won three in a row against the Broncos and just one of those matchups was decided by one score.
Toledo at Western Michigan
Kickoff: Wednesday, Nov. 11 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: Western Michigan -2.5
When Toledo Has the Ball
The quarterback position was a question mark for Toledo entering the 2020 season, but Candle has to be feeling better about this position after the opener. Yes, it's only one game, but quarterback Eli Peters connected on 20 of 32 passes for 214 yards and four touchdowns. He also ran for 67 yards over six carries, boosted by a 31-yard scamper in the third quarter. Those numbers were a good sign after Peters threw for 828 yards and six touchdowns over five appearances last season. Helping Peters' production in the passing department is a talented group of receivers. Bryce Mitchell led the way against Bowling Green with three catches for 58 yards and a score, while Jerjuan Newton (three catches), Devin Maddox (three), and Danzel McKinley-Lewis (three) also chipped in.
While Toledo has to be feeling better about its passing game, the unquestioned strength of this team rests with its offensive line and running game. The return of center Bryce Harris from a season-ending injury bolstered a unit that featured All-MAC guard Nick Rosi and returning starter Luke Doerger. The one-two punch of Bryant Koback and Shakif Seymour anchored a ground attack that averaged 224.5 rushing yards a game last season and posted 310 in the opener against Bowling Green. Koback (74 yards) and Seymour (93) will see a heavy dose of carries against a Western Michigan defense that ranked seventh in the MAC against the run last season and gave up 130 yards to Akron — a team that averaged just 47.6 rushing yards a contest last fall. The Broncos did generate seven tackles for a loss versus the Zips, with standout linebacker Treshaun Heyward pacing the unit with eight overall tackles.
Like Toledo's passing attack, Western Michigan has to be feeling good about its defense after last week. Akron scored 13 points, managed 256 yards (4.0 per play), went 4-of-14 on third-down attempts, and only extended one drive in the second half beyond 19 yards. The Broncos were willing to trade some yards for stops in the red zone last year, as this unit finished second in the conference in points allowed (25.9) but gave up 5.8 per play and ranked in the middle of the league against the run and pass. In last season's meeting, Toledo posted 275 rushing yards against Western Michigan in a 31-24 victory. If the Broncos are to win on Wednesday night, performing better in the trenches and keeping the Rockets' potent rushing attack grounded is a must.
When Western Michigan Has the Ball
Even though Kaleb Eleby wasn't a returning starter, Western Michigan didn't have to worry about its quarterback situation much this offseason. That's due to Eleby's five-game stint under center in 2018, including a start against BYU in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl and a 285-yard performance against Northern Illinois. Eleby showcased his development in the opener versus Akron. The sophomore threw for 262 yards and three touchdowns on just 12 completions, which included bombs of 68 yards to Jaylen Hall and 76 yards to D'Wayne Eskridge for scores.
The going will get tougher for Eleby and Western Michigan's receiving corps on Wednesday night. Toledo's pass defense finished 2019 ranked third in the MAC and held Bowling Green to just 128 yards on eight completions. The Falcons hit on passes of 42, 24, and 21 yards, which accounted for 87 of the team's yardage. Standout cornerback Samuel Womack and safety Tycen Anderson lead the way on the back end and were key players in the team's win over the Broncos last fall. The Rockets gave up 303 passing yards to Jon Wassink but also sacked him five times, forced a takeaway, and stopped two drives on fourth down in Toledo territory. Will Eleby connect on a couple of downfield throws to Eskridge, Skyy Moore, and Hall? Or will Toledo's defense bend a little in yardage to prevent the big plays downfield?
Western Michigan's streak of six seasons with a 1,000-yard rusher is likely to end this fall, but Lester can deploy a couple of options in the backfield. Michigan State transfer La'Darius Jefferson (70 yards) paced the team in rushing in the opener, with Sean Tyler (68) and Jaxson Kincaide (42) also contributing. Toledo ranked 10th in the MAC against the run last year, so this unit could be suspect once again in 2020.
In this abbreviated and unusual season, it's hard to read too much into results or overreact to one week of games. Both Toledo and Western Michigan were impressive in the opening week of MACtion, but let's also be realistic here — both Akron and Bowling Green rank near the bottom of the conference in power rankings. Western Michigan has won just one of the last five matchups versus Toledo in Kalamazoo. The winner of this matchup will take a step forward in the pecking order of the tight West Division battle. The Broncos need a big night from Eleby, while the Rockets hope Peters picks up where he left off last week and the ground game has lift-off. This one is a toss-up and could be the most entertaining game in the second week of MACtion in 2020.
Prediction: Toledo 34, Western Michigan 31