2021 Toledo Football Preview: Schedule, 4 Things

Toledo’s always expected to be one of the best teams in the league in any given year because of all the work that’s gone into keeping that expectation level up. The talent level of players coming into the program has not really slowed down at any point over the past decade, and the talent level is why people should still buy into the Rockets in 2021.

Have the Rockets lost games it shouldn’t have over the years? Absolutely. Has this team made changes on its coaching roster to fix some previous mistakes? Indeed, it has. Do the Rockets have more talent than most teams it’ll face in 2021? For the most part, I think so.

Schedule

Toledo Rockets 2020 football schedule, final results (4-2, 4-2 MAC)

SP+ final rank: 76 (61 offense, 79 defense, 110 special teams)

  • W vs. BGSU, 38-3 — After being upset by the rivaled Falcons for the first time in a decade in 2019, Toledo scored in all five of its trips to the red zone and picked off BG’s new QB Matt McDonald twice (He was also 8-of-30 passing).
  • L @ WMU, 41-38 — A true MACtion game for the ages. Toledo lost on a fake-spike throw to the endzone during a widespread state of confusion. While other crazy moments popped up (WMU’s onside kick recovered by the kicker), Toledo might’ve won this game if it would’ve tried to try to run out the clock with three minutes left in the game instead of scoring a touchdown, untouched.
  • W @ EMU, 45-28 — Toledo’s talent advantage on the outside mattered was on full-display this night, and it was the first time in this series that the final score wasn’t a one-possession game since 2016. Eli Peters left with an injury and Carter Bradley had to come in for relief. Both QBs finished with 2 TD passes; Bryant Koback 149 yards rushed.
  • L vs. Ball State, 27-24 — Toledo’s OL allowed five sacks on the night, and Koback was limited to 33 rushing yards. Instead of a sixth sack to end the game, the ball was knocked out of Carter Bradley’s hand on a late pass play (a minute left in the game) and the Cardinals recovered the fumble.
  • W @ NIU, 41-24 — This game was neck-and-neck through three quarters before UT ran off with a 17-0 fourth quarter. Bradley had over 400 yards throwing (3 TD, 2 INT) with two receivers cashing in at 100 yards receiving each (Danzel McKinley-Lewis, Isaiah Winstead). Micah Kelley had 72 rush yards, and it looks like he’s just getting warmed up.
  • W vs. CMU, 24-23 — CMU did a fine job shortening up the game as much as it could, and Toledo’s three interceptions thrown helped keep this close. Bryant Koback was the offenses leader for rushing (24 att., 123 yards) and receiving (5 rec., 44 yards, 1 TD) and DT Desjuan Johnson made plenty of plays as well (8 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 QH). In the 4th quarter, CMU was forced to punt twice and fumbled it away on its last possession while Toledo was able to get a last-minute TD out of blossoming WR Jerjuan Newton.

Toledo Rockets 2021 football schedule

SP+ preseason rank: 79 (83 offense, 76 defense)

  1. vs. Norfolk State
  2. at Notre Dame
  3. vs. Colorado State
  4. at Ball State
  5. at UMass
  6. vs. NIU
  7. at CMU
  8. vs. WMU
  9. bye
  10. vs. EMU (Tue.)
  11. at BGSU (Wed.)
  12. at Ohio (Tue.)
  13. vs. Akron

4 Things

1. The pessimism

I’ve seen some angst around the Toledo base, mostly centered around the losses Toledo fans wish they could take back. The fake spike TD pass as Western Michigan’s finishing move last year stands out and Ball State has beaten the Rockets in each of the last two years.

Toledo’s almost always predicted (by the media, coaches) to finish, at least, in the top-half of the MAC West division in any given year, with plenty of first-place votes. Toledo was picked to finish second in 2018, but finished in fourth (last of a three-way tiebreaker for second). In 2019, Toledo was picked to finish first, but actually finished fifth. Toledo was picked to finish second last year, but finished third.

2017 pre.2017 final2018 pre.2018 final2019 pre.2019 final2020 pre.2020 final
Toledo (22)Toledo (7-1)NIU (15)NIU (6-2)Toledo (15)CMU (6-2)CMU (10)Ball St (5-1)
WMU (1)CMU (6-2)Toledo (7)WMU (5-3)WMU (5)WMU (5-3)Toledo (7)WMU (4-2)
NIU (1)NIU (6-2)WMU (1)EMU (5-3)NIU (3)Ball St (4-4)Ball St (3)Toledo (4-2)
EMUWMU (4-4)EMUToledo (5-3)EMUNIU (4-4)WMU (3)CMU (3-3)
CMUEMU (3-5)CMU (1)Ball St (3-5)Ball StToledo (3-5)EMUEMU (2-4)
Ball SBall St (0-8)Ball StCMU (0-8)CMU (1)EMU (3-5)NIUNIU (0-6)
Preseason MAC Media polls (w/ first-place votes/MAC records)

People are still going to pick Toledo. I haven’t written my predictions yet but I might even pick Toledo to win/come close to winning the West this year. Even in its off years, there’s still a lot to like about Toledo and there are still a lot of moving parts here that, I believe, are going in the right direction.

2. Coaching upgrades

A few coaching changes were made in the 2019 postseason. Here are the three that I want to focus on for a little bit, because they’re certainly all great hires and have immediately paid off for the team even if Toledo went 4-2 instead of 6-0.

  • Co-OC/QBs Robert Weiner — Was the head coach for Tampa, Fla.’s Plant HS for 16 years where he won four state titles and two runner-up finishes. Helped groom Aaron Murray, Robert Marve, and Phillip Ely into FBS quarterbacks. Tucker Gleason, a current freshman, played for Weiner in HS, signed with Georgia Tech in 2020 and has since transferred to Toledo to play for his former HS coach. Since the hire, Toledo QBs their collective yards per pass attempt rate go up from 7.4 to 8.9, and its efficiency went up from 129.7 to 161.0. Carter Bradley returns, and he also stepped up in 2020 (2019: 46/100, 502 yards, 5.0 Y/A, 1 TD, 2 INT | 2020: 55/89, 849 yards, 9.5 Y/A, 9 TD, 5 INT) so there’s reason to still believe in the former Elite 11 finalist.
  • Asst. HC/Co-DC/OLBs Criag Kuligowski — Former Toledo Rocket and two-time First Team All-MAC selection himself. Was an assistant under Gary Pinkel from 1992-2000, and was an associate head coach/DL coach for Alabama in 2018. In 2020, OLB Jamal Hines was a second-team All-MAC player (was third team in 2019).
  • DC/LBs Vince Kehres — After 21 years at Mount Union (head coach for last eight years, 95-6 record), Kehres became the DC for Toledo last year. In 2019, opponents out-performed the Rockets with 32.2 points per game scored and 6.6 yards per play. In 2020, Toledo’s defense slowed down opponents at 24.3 ppg allowed and 5.4 ypp allowed.

3. This is where Bryant Koback stands in UT history

  • 2,626 career rushing yards: 9th in Toledo history
  • 30 career rush TD: Close to the top 5 in Toledo history

Ninth on the all-time rushing list, Koback is behind the likes of Kareem Hunt (4,945), Chester Taylor (4,849), Wasean Tait (4,338), Terry Swanson (3,601), Trinity Dawson (3,474), David Fluellen (3,336), Jalen Parmele (3,119), and Casey McBeth (2,719). A 1,000-yard season would have Koback finishing third on this list, sliding right above recently-hired coach Swanson. If Koback were to take the top spot, he’d have to peel off for 2,320 total rush yards (or 193 yards per game), which seems very unlikely at this point.

Toledo’s current record book (aka the 2020 media guide) only lists the top 5 career rushing TD holders in school history: Chester Taylor (56), Kareem Hunt (44), Wasean Tait (38), Joe Schwartz (35) and Roland Moss (32). If given the opportunities, it’s easy to see Koback in the top 5, but it’d take at least 14 rushing touchdowns to be tied for the No. 2 spot on here with Hunt.

Rushing records aren’t the most important thing in the world, but it’s going to be a little bit more difficult for Koback to reach great heights in these categories if the run efficiency continues to go down (and his pass-catching continues to go up) in 2021. Koback was second on the team last year with 30 receiving targets (24 receptions) in six games. Over his freshman and sophomore seasons, 24 games, Koback was targeted just 18 times (11 rec.). For whatever it’s worth, I don’t think Koback was under-utilized as a receiver. He had four drops in those two years and was 0-for-1 on contested targets with just 1.55 yards per route run in 2020. (All info per PFF.com). Koback was targeted a lot more in 2020 on plays that were designed to have him wide open on short routes with some grass in front of him while the UT receivers work to clear out vertically downfield. It’s a convenient way for him to get the ball in ways that don’t always involve belly handoffs, and probably a more effective use of his time.

4. The D-line

Toledo’s known for its offensive prowess, but this year I hope you’re paying attention to how deep this team’s defensive line is. There’s a ton of talent here, and might be the most important group for Toledo’s success in 2021.

  • NT, Judge Culpepper — The son of an All-American defensive lineman and NFL veteran, Brad Culpepper, and a Penn State transfer. Mostly a special teams player at Penn State, but Phil Steele has him as a Preseason All-MAC pick.
  • DE, Nate Givhan — Was in the DE rotation in 2020; played all 12 games (7 starts) in 2019 and 10 games in 2018. Last year he recorded 8 tackles, 1 QBH, and 1 INT. Junior eligible.
  • DE, Jamal Hines — Last year, was second on the team with 29 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 3 QBH and 1 pick six. Was a Second Team All-MAC Pick in 2020, Third Team in 2019 (8.5 TFL). Junior eligible.
  • DT, David Hood — Played all 12 games in 2019 and started all six in 2020. Had 13 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1 FR.
  • DT, Desjuan Johnson — The highest-graded defensive player last year, per PFF.com (85.3). He recorded 27 tackles, 8 TFL, 3 sacks, 14 QBH last year, and was a Second Team All-MAC player. Junior eligible.
  • DT, Devan Rogers — Full-year starter in 2019, rotational full-year player in 2020. Recorded 15 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack last year. Senior eligible.
  • DE, Terrance Taylor — Missed one game in 2020, started four times. Last year, recorded 20 tackles. 4.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 1 FF, 2 QBH, and 1 PBU. Junior eligible. —

Assuming somebody not listed here breaks through this season and most of these guys playing up to their potentials, this should be a dangerous group. This group showed up big time vs. Ball State (Hines 11 tackles, 1.5 TFL; Taylor 10 tackles, 1.5 TFL; Johnson 9 tackles, 1.5 sacks; Hood 5 tackles), but the offense didn’t help out that day (3 punts, 2 turnovers, 3 turnovers on downs).

If the offense gets clicking, look to this defensive line to keep games at a distance.

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