Tulsa is a double-digit underdog this week as they travel north to Toledo to take on the (2-0) Toledo Rockets. The Rockets carry high expectations and confidence into this season. They were picked by most to win the MAC for their first time ever, largely due to the fact that they have known commodities offensively; a NFL caliber QB, a 1200 yard receiver, and an offensive line that can get the job done. This non-conference game is a must-win for Toledo if they are to maintain their high level of confidence. Let’s get into my preview.
Last season: Toledo went 9-4, they finished second in the MAC behind Western Michigan. They finished 19th in the NCAA with 38 ppg. They did so by having a top 50 rushing and passing attack. The offense was lead by 3 players: QB Logan Woodside had the second best QB rating in the nation at 183.3. Kareem Hunt ran for 1400 yards, and WR Cody Thompson had 1269 yards (17th in the nation) and 11 TDs. Despite having an awesome, fast-paced offense, the Rocket’s defense didn’t suffer. They only allowed more than 30 points 4 times, good enough for a top 50 scoring defense.
This season: The Rockets have been consistently good for awhile now. 7 straight bow games, multiple 9+ win seasons, but they’ve yet to get over the hill to win the MAC West. For the longest time it was Northern Illinois who prevented them from getting to the title game. Last year Toledo was able to take down the Huskies, but Western Michigan’s undefeated season stuffed the Rocket’s chance at the MAC title. In 2017, it seems like this is finally their year. Returning an NFL-caliber QB, a top WR, and enough of the offensive line and defense was enough for most journalists to pick Toledo to win their first MAC title. So far this year Toledo has lived up to the hype; 47-13 home win over Elon, and a 37-24 road victory at Nevada.
The coach: Jason Candle was an internal hire for Toledo, and he has worked out quite well so far. Candle has been with the Rockets since 2009, and was named the head coach in 2015 shortly after Matt Campbell departed for Iowa State. Candle’s first game was the Boca Raton bowl in 2015 where he had an impressive 32-17 win over Temple. He followed that up with a successful 9-4 record in 2016.
Best players: On the offensive end it all starts with QB Logan Woodside (#11), and his favorite receiver Cody Thompson (#25). Woodside is ranked as the 11th best QB for the upcoming NFL draft. He has thrown for 314 and 232 yards in his first two games, with 2 TDs and no interceptions.
Thompson is a highly skilled, possession receiver. He is also athletic enough to be their top big-play threat, think of him as a Keevan Lucas type player. He has gone for over 100 yards in both games this season. He will need the full attention of our secondary, especially on the shallow crossing routes that killed us a week ago.
Keys to the Game
Pass rush needs to pin their ears back and gets after Logan Woodside. The pass rush has been up and down the first two weeks, this game is a great chance for them to show what they can do.
Stop the shallow crossing routes. I’m not sure what happened last week, but Woodside and Thompson are licking their chops after seeing ULL throw the ball with ease.
Control the tempo offensively. MAC games can get weird. Toledo has been in some 60 point thrillers, and the Glass Bowl is ready to erupt after every touchdown. TU needs to set the tempo with the run game early, and never let the Rockets get any life in them.
Run the ball effectively. Tulsa’s pass rush will be eager to rush the QB, but if Toledo can hit the run early then the pass rush will become timid.
Get players like Cody Thompson in space. Last week tackling was an issue for TU’s defense, challenge them in space this week to see if they have improved.
Make Chad President uncomfortable. President has shown good poise and comfort for most of this season, but he is still a new QB who has a lot to learn. Frustrate him with coverages, bat down is low passes, and do anything to make him lose confidence. If things get bad, chances are he’ll start looking over his shoulder to see if Luke Skipper is warming up.
Uniforms: I have always found Toledo’s uniforms weirdly attractive.. The colors are just atrocious, but there is something retro about them that make me like them. With that said though, their two-tone helmet is awful and Tulsa has the easy advantage. For my prediction I bet TU goes Gold-White-Blue.
My preview: This was a game I circled in early August. It is an opportunity for us to see what we really have with our team, and I identified it as the game where the QB battle would be decided. Without doubt, Toledo is a talented team, but after looking at their schedule from the last few years I have realized that the MAC is actually really bad. The best win of the 2016 season for Toledo was a victory over NIU, who went 5-7. Toledo and TU share two common opponents from 2016. The first is Central Michigan. The Rockets hosted and beat CMU 31-17, and we all know how the Miami Beach Bowl turned out for Tulsa. Conversely, Toledo throttled Fresno State 52-17, while Tulsa needed 2 OTs, so touché… I’m not saying Toledo isn’t good, just that in my opinion 9-4 in the MAC isn’t the same as 9-4 in the AAC.
This game reminds me a lot of the Memphis game from last year. Awesome QB that can turn the ball over occasionally, consistent run game, and a streaky defense. In that preview I wrote this:
“The key for Tulsa slowing Memphis this week is first, stop the run. Memphis is not overly impressive running the ball, but it certainly a large part of their offense; the Tigers have 5 backs averaging over 6 yards per carry. If Tulsa can make Memphis 1-dimensional, that leads to my second point: pressure the QB. Riley Ferguson is inexperienced, and after listening to a Memphis podcast, I’ve learned that he is known to try and do too much when he is trying to escape pressure. This can lead to big sacks, fumbles, and interceptions.”
I echo those exact same thoughts in this game. Toledo certainly provides a challenge for our struggling defense, but if I am Bill Young I am showing my defense the film from last year’s Memphis game.
My preview: The biggest concern in this game is obviously Tulsa’s defense. Toledo isn’t nearly as talented as OSU, but they are a whole lot better than Louisiana Lafayette. Our offense did quite well last week, and while they face a stronger competition this week I still expect a 30+ point performance. Toledo had a solid scoring defense last year, but they also had 2 games where they allowed 50+ points.
At the end of the day, I just can’t get myself to pick Tulsa because of what I saw defensively last week. If TU was playing sound defensively, but just needed to make a couple of big plays that would be one thing. TU right now doesn’t need to just make more plays, they need to do basic things like cover receivers and tackle. I predict that TU will go stride for stride with Toledo for 2 quarters, but end up falling behind by double digits and never recovering. Toledo 44-31