Notre Dame’s Opponents: With nearly the entire roster returning, Toledo set to Rocket

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 04 Bowling Green at Toledo
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Most Power Five football programs may look right past Toledo. Their fans are certainly prone to. And that includes Notre Dame’s.

But the Rockets should not be overlooked in 2021. They return more than most any team in the country off a strong team that was two field goals short of an unbeaten 2020. As the second weekend of September approaches, headlines will start to realize: Toledo will play the Irish tough.

In the end, Notre Dame should distance itself from the Rockets — looking at preseason analytics, the Irish will be favored by more than two touchdowns — but this will not be a MAC program cowed by the moment. It simply has too much experience.

2020 REVIEW
The MAC was one of the last conferences to return to football during the pandemic (literally days ahead of the Pac 12). Toledo played on three November Wednesdays (not even a pandemic could rob the world of MACtion) before taking a week off followed by three traditional Saturdays, losing once in each set.

Both losses came by a mere field goal, and both losses came after the Rockets should have won. They had no one to blame but themselves.

At Western Michigan, Toledo took a 10-point lead with less than three minutes remaining before giving up two touchdowns in the final minute. Despite outgaining the Broncos by 64 yards and possessing the ball for more than 38 minutes, the Rockets had to swallow a 41-38 loss.

A few weeks later, they were driving to take a last-second lead against Ball State before fumbling on the Cardinals’ side of the field in the final minute, thus losing 27-24.

Toledo nearly ran the table during the pandemic, a woulda, coulda, shoulda that undoubtedly lingered in the Rockets’ memories through the offseason.

WHAT TOLEDO LOST
Just about nothing. Literally.

The Rockets would have returned more production than any other team in the country this year if not for the medical retirement of quarterback Eli Peters, but even without Peters, Toledo returns a quarterback with two starts of experience as well as a starter at every other position on the team.

Admittedly, most teams return more than usual thanks to the universal pandemic eligibility waiver, but the Rockets’ ability to run back the entire roster is another level of absurdity.

Toledo does not return just its starting offensive line, but the entire two-deep. Not only do the Rockets’ leading few receivers come back, but their top six do. When looking at defenders who made double-digit tackles in 2020’s six games, all 15 come back to play twice as many contests in 2021.

PEACOCK
Yes, Notre Dame’s game against Toledo will be available on only Peacock, NBC’s streaming app, behind the subscription wall. Yes, this is a change.

But it’s the way the world is moving, and by putting one game on the streaming platform, NBC is keeping the Irish in lockstep with the rest of the country.

The SEC will put a game per team onto ESPN+ this season. Less-appealing ACC games have long ended up on regional sports networks that inconsistently show up on ESPN+, as well. Oklahoma has a game on pay-per-view each season, including when Army forced the Sooners into overtime three years ago.

This is the standard in 2021; Notre Dame having every other game of its season on national television keeps the Irish as a rarity.

This logic is mentioned here because the drum of a reminder should probably be banged routinely for the next few weeks: Sign up for Peacock before 2:30 ET on Sept. 11, lest that rush be the hiccup that keeps you from enjoying the first kickoff with a full Notre Dame Stadium in some 21 months.

OFFENSIVE SUMMARY
The Rockets have options to replace Peters, partly because logic follows that injuries forced his medical retirement, and others played when he was out injured. Namely, sophomore Carter Bradley started the final two games last year, finishing the season with 849 yards and nine touchdowns on 55-of-89 passing with five interceptions.

A Georgia Tech transfer or another sophomore may pressure Peters, but he has the inside track to start for Toledo and thus be the beneficiary of that veteran offensive line and that multitude of receivers, the latter of which is led by junior Isaiah Winstead, who had 429 receiving yards in just six games last year.

That offense averaged 35.0 points per game, though it was against six MAC opponents. Such are the perils of putting too much weight into 2020’s results.

Beyond 2020, however, senior running back Bryant Koback has already gained 2,625 rushing yards and scored 30 touchdowns in three seasons, with one of those seasons clearly being only six games.

DEFENSIVE SUMMARY
A few years ago, this would be the failure in the Rockets’ system. As recently as 2019, they gave up 6.6 yards per play. Then head coach Jason Candle hired defensive coordinator Vince Kehres from Mount Union in Division III and the ship finally began to right. Toledo gave up only 5.4 yards per play last year, a number arguably depressed by facing only MAC opposition but also one inflated by the lack of an offseason for Kehres to implement his system.

Either way, that entire defense returns, as do all of the backups, with stalwarts at each level.

Defensive tackle Desjuan Johnson has 15 tackles for loss in his career, outdone by defensive end Jamal Hines’ 22. Linebacker Dyontae Johnson had 47 tackles in six games last year, while cornerback Samuel Womack managed seven pass breakups in that same shortened slate.

2021 OUTLOOK
Candle has reached his sixth season at Toledo not yet atop any touted coaching lists, but a strong 2021 will change that. By now, the Rockets have become the favorite to win the MAC, listed at slightly higher than 2-to-1 by PointsBet. Given the chaotic nature of the conference, that is a risky wager, but someone needs to be the favorite.

Toledo’s season win total over/under is set at 8.5, and with five rather certain wins on the schedule — Norfolk St., UMass, Northern Illinois, Bowling Green and Akron — that number should be quickly achieved, as well.

The success or failure of the Rockets’ season will not come in their first-ever matchup with Notre Dame, but if they make that a tight affair, it will bode well for those season-long prospects, not to mention Peacock’s subscription numbers.

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