And In That Corner … The Toledo Rockets bring experience and frustration to Notre Dame

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 18 Toledo at Eastern Michigan
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It is a mistake to watch only college football’s name brands. The “Power Five” may get the primetime matchups, the Playoff berths and most of the headlines, but the sport’s true beauty lies as much within the other half of the 130 teams in the FBS. Watching Notre Dame on a given Saturday can be enjoyable, but for many others, watching schools in the MAC or the Sun Belt means just as much.

That passion thus creates gameday environments every bit the equal of Notre Dame Stadium this weekend, and then players want to shine in those atmospheres. The so-called mid-majors or Group of Five teams end up with more quality than too many people realize.

This year’s Toledo team is a prime example. The Rockets return nearly their entire roster from a 4-2 season in the pandemic. They have a sixth-year head coach who managed the difficult task of taking over a successful program and keeping it at that high standard, far easier said than done, and now Jason Candle may have Toledo poised for a breakout season, the favorite to win the MAC and quite possibly a dark horse to reach a New Year’s Six bowl.

Notre Dame is obviously and understandably favored against the Rockets, but this is not the assumed blowout some make it out to be, so to dive further into the Rockets, let’s turn to Kyle Rowland of The Toledo Blade.

DF: This game might have my interest more than No. 8 Notre Dame’s game in two weeks against No. 18 Wisconsin, even though that one is a top-20 matchup in Chicago. Getting fans back into Notre Dame Stadium will be a very welcome sight, and I know enough to realize Toledo will not be a pushover.

No offense intended to Norfolk State, but the Rockets’ 49-10 victory last weekend did not tell me too much except to confirm Carter Bradley will take over as Toledo’s quarterback after Eli Peters retired during the offseason due to medical issues. Given he is the only of last year’s starters not to return, let me spend a moment on Peters. Was his retirement anticipated? To be honest, in my offseason reading — probably two or three hours on Toledo alone — I never saw the exact issue. What forced the end of his career?

KR: It definitely wasn’t anticipated, but he had an injury-plagued career. The accumulation of injuries is what permanently sidelined him. 

Bradley started a few games last year and was plenty efficient in the romp of Norfolk State, completing 8 of 12 passes for 183 yards and a touchdown, but again, that game did not tell me too much. I doubt Bradley is going to average 22.9 yards per completion this Saturday. What should I expect of him? Where does he excel?

Carter Bradley is the prototypical coach’s son. (His dad is longtime NFL defensive coordinator and former Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley.) He works hard. He’s smart. He stays within himself. The thing Candle hates most is throwing interceptions, and Bradley did a better job of that than DeQuan Finn throughout camp.

Bradley is also a better pure quarterback and more of a fit for Candle’s offensive style. His football IQ and savvy generally limit his mistakes. At one time during the recruiting process, Bradley was a 4-star, and you can see why in his size and mechanics.   

He is supported by running back Bryant Koback. Rather, I should say, prolific running back Bryant Koback. In what amounts to 2.5 seasons, he ran for 2,625 yards and 30 touchdowns. Last week he led a rushing attack that averaged 5.3 yards per carry. That is not messing around. At 6-foot, 210 pounds, he is well built but not necessarily a massive back. What are the strengths of the one-time Kentucky transfer (albeit, a transfer back in 2018)?

Koback is a bruising runner. He can beat you with strength and speed. It also helps that he runs behind arguably the best offensive line in the MAC. I don’t expect him to be completely shut down by the Irish. Backup Micah Kelly isn’t your typical second-stringer in the MAC. Notre Dame will have to keep its eye on him because he can get loose and create chunk plays. To beat Notre Dame, the run game will have to be involved. 

I know Toledo has a deep and talented receiving corps and returns all five starting offensive linemen, but Bradley and Koback stand out to me. I may be misreading this, though. Do you expect the Rockets to try to outgun Notre Dame or more to outlast the Irish?

Good question. Perhaps a combination of the two. If it’s a shootout, I feel like Notre Dame is probably more equipped since they have better players and a deeper roster. But after watching the Florida State game, I would be surprised if Toledo doesn’t put up some points. Candle is a great offensive mind, and the Rockets have talent. They should be able to scare the Irish for at least a half. 

Earlier I said Peters was the only 2020 starter to not return. Do I have that right? If so, has there been any shuffling? In the year of the transfer, did Toledo add anyone who usurped a returning starter? To be honest, my preseason notes do not mention any, but a brief conversation Monday convinced me I missed at least one player. Maybe I was misled. This is why I seek expert input!

Bradley started multiple games last year, so you can technically say Toledo returns all 22 starters. One issue that arose, however, was a season-ending injury to linebacker Dan Bolden just before the start of preseason practices. That wiped out a returning starter.  

When I do these interviews right, I move from the micro to the macro, and one big-picture question I have admittedly looks backward: How frustrated was Toledo by its two losses in 2020? To finish that strenuous season just six points away from a 6-0 record had to have been an offseason motivation.

Has that motivation created a MAC title-or-bust tint on this season? Toledo is the conference favorite, with all those returning contributors … If not now, when?

The Western Michigan loss was the game that really stuck with the Rockets and derailed the season. They allowed two touchdowns in the final 45 seconds, a disastrous ending and defensive meltdown.

Sure, there’s motivation. Toledo has underachieved since winning the MAC in 2017, period. The program seemed to be ascending and then hit a lull. There are massive expectations this season. Anything short of 9-3 (and probably 10-2) will be viewed as a disappointment. 

That said, of course the Rockets would relish leaving South Bend with a top-10 victory. Honestly, if they pull off an upset Saturday, they could (should?) finish the regular season 12-0. Currently a 16.5-point underdog, what do you anticipate from Toledo in its first road game in front of fans in two years?

I think Toledo keeps it close in the first half by simply showing up. That’s not meant to overrate Notre Dame. I just think if you’re going to go 10-2 and win the MAC, you should be able to play with anyone for a half. If Notre Dame is up 21-3 or 28-7 at halftime, it’s not a positive outcome for the Rockets. They can’t just throw up their hands and say, ‘Well, it’s Notre Dame. What were we supposed to do?’ They’ve had the best recruiting class in the MAC for five straight seasons. They have a veteran roster. There’s no reason why they can’t put a scare into the Irish for one half. 

Notre Dame is obviously going to have to make mistakes. Part of that is Jack Coan looking like the Wisconsin quarterback and not the guy that lit up Florida State. If Notre Dame’s defense struggles again, I see no reason why Toledo can’t put up points with a prolific, diverse offense. Carter Bradley will need to be at his peak, with Notre Dame’s secondary struggling to cover a deep Toledo receiving corps. Defensively, the Rockets will need to stuff the run and make Coan attack them. If Toledo’s veteran secondary can have success, perhaps it causes Coan to be rattled. 

And lastly, because I am intent on mentioning this in every article this week, what were the reactions from Rockets fans when it was announced this game would be available exclusively on Peacock, the NBC streaming app? Have you successfully reminded them to sign up ahead of time? Should I pass along the $2.50/month promo link?

People definitely weren’t thrilled. A) Part of the allure of playing Notre Dame is getting the NBC telecast. B) Fans aren’t thrilled with paying extra to watch a game on an app. That’s college football in 2021, though. This will be the norm in the coming years. (I’d be happy to spread the word!)