Toledo guards the football better than any team in the country, while nobody unearths the pigskin better than Middle Tennessee.
Football protection will be a key component on Friday afternoon when the Rockets (7-5) battle Middle Tennessee (6-6) in the Bahamas Bowl at Nassau, Bahamas.
Toledo leads the nation by committing just six turnovers (two interceptions, four fumbles), while the Blue Raiders have forced a nation-best 31 (16 interceptions, 15 fumbles).
Even while being stingy with the football, the Rockets of the Mid-American Conference had to win three straight games and four of their past five to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2018. The destination was the Bahamas Bowl that time too, with the Rockets falling 35-32 to Florida International.
Toledo averaged 43.2 points over the five-game run with star running back Bryant Koback topping 100 rushing yards in each contest. Koback ranks 11th nationally with 1,274 yards and is exactly 100 yards away from becoming the fourth Toledo player to reach 4,000 career rushing yards.
“We would be crazy after going through the last year and a half and taking anything for granted,” Rockets coach Jason Candle said, referencing the COVID-19 situation. “We aren’t taking this opportunity lightly. We’re going to respect this opportunity with great detail and put our best foot forward and try to win a football game.”
Toledo’s top effort of the season may have come in a loss on Sept. 11. The Rockets were winning late at then-No. 7 Notre Dame before the Fighting Irish scored with 1:09 left to pull out a 32-29 victory.
That close call didn’t spur on the Rockets, who were sitting at a disappointing 4-5 prior to the three-game winning streak to conclude the regular season.
“Three conference losses by a total of eight points, I think when those things happen, you have a couple of choices,” Candle said. “You can fold and go one way or you rally together and go a totally different direction.”
The November push earned Toledo the date with Middle Tennessee, a Conference USA program that has been above .500 just once all season — when it won its opener against FCS program Monmouth.
The Blue Raiders went 4-2 over the second half of the season and qualified for bowl consideration with a 27-17 victory over Florida Atlantic on Nov. 27.
Middle Tennessee also had to throw freshman quarterback Nick Vattiato into the mix after previous starter Chase Cunningham suffered a season-ending leg injury against Southern Miss on Oct. 30.
“This team went through so much adversity throughout the course of the year,” Blue Raiders coach Rick Stockstill said. “We went through four quarterbacks. We never really found a rhythm offensively. Games 3 and 4 after the Virginia Tech game (a 35-14 loss), we had 13 players out those two weeks because of injuries and other health issues.
“It sounds like an excuse. It’s not, it’s a fact. We just played more consistently (in the second half). We had more continuity. I feel like we’re close to breaking loose offensively.”
Middle Tennessee has a standout punt returner in Jaylin Lane, who led the nation with a 16.9 average. He also returned one for a touchdown.
Standout safety Reed Blankenship led the Blue Raiders with 100 tackles and three fumble recoveries and cornerback Quincy Riley had a team-best five interceptions.
Now the defensive task is to try to force the Rockets to cough up the ball or throw an errant pass.
“They’re very efficient offensively,” Stockstill said of Toledo. “It’s a very balanced team.”
Middle Tennessee is playing in its first bowl game since losing 45-13 to Appalachian State in the 2018 New Orleans Bowl.
–Field Level Media