Preview: Chippewas square off with Toledo in massive MAC West showdown
After two long and grueling road games to open Mid-American Conference play, Central Michigan football team welcomes in its first Mid-American Conference West Division opponent of the 2021 season.
The Chippewas (3-3, 1-1 MAC), will host the Toledo Rockets (3-3, 1-1 MAC) their Homecoming game at 3:30 p.m. Saturday. CMU is coming off a 30-27 win over Ohio, while the Rockets lost to NIU, 22-20, in their last showing.
In what is shaping up to be a key game in the West Division standings, coach Jim McElwain stressed the importance of his team playing its best in front of the home fans.
"Hopefully we have a great crowd," McElwain said. "Should be a fantastic game. And obviously (Toledo) is a really, really good football team. All you've got to do is turn on the film and watch them play Notre Dame, a team that they had beat. We've got our work cut out for us."
CMU will be without two key contributors, senior wide receiver JaCorey Sullivan and junior linebacker Troy Brown, for the matchup. A third, tight end Hunter Buczkowski, is questionable.
The Chippewas got a standout performance last week from redshirt freshman running back Lew Nichols III. The Detroit native ran for 186 yards on 30 carries, both season-high's. Wide receiver Kalil Pimpleton also turned in a big performance, scoring two fourth quarter touchdowns in the win.
Meet the opponent
Toledo, like CMU's last two opponents, features a two-quarterback system in sophomore Carter Bradley and redshirt freshman Dequan Finn. Bradley is more of a passing threat, while Finn brings both a dangerous running ability and an improved arm from years past.
"When it comes to Toledo and the two-quarterback system, you just have to know personnel," said CMU junior linebacker George Douglas. "You have to know (Finn), you have to respect his feet, he's great with his feet. When he gets the ball and he gets on the ground, he can make plays. (Bradley) as well can make plays on the ground, but he's more in the air type of guy. Both guys can make plays."
The Rockets also feature junior running back Bryant Koback, who has earned 3,074 rushing yards in his career. Out wide, former walk-on Devin Maddox leads the team with 23 catches, 375 yards and three touchdowns on an offense that has struggled to score and finish drives in 2021.
While the Rockets offense has struggled to find a rhythm, the defense has been superb. Toledo is first in the conference in scoring defense and has allowed just seven total touchdowns in six games. Junior outside linebacker Jamal Hines and senior linebacker Jonathon Jones have combined for 81 tackles while ranking first and second on the team respectively.
Toledo's defense, led by second-year defensive coordinator Vince Kehres, has generated 10 takeaways. Five are interceptions, of which Chris McDonald has a team-high two. Jones has forced two fumbles and is one of five different players with a recovery.
Punter Bailey Flint has averaged 44.1 yards per punt on a conference-high 37 attempts, while kicker Thomas Cluckey is eight-for-11 on field goal attempts. Cluckey's season-long is 43 yards.
Big question: Can Chippewa defense dominate?
The Rocket offense has been uncharacteristically stagnant in 2021. The two-quarterback system between Bradley and Finn has struggled to achieve continuity, leading to some of the struggles. There have also been issues with the offensive line.
However, the Chippewas struggle in the secondary. This matchup seems like a good one for the CMU front seven, but success will hinge on the performance of those in the secondary. Toledo has the playmakers to exploit the issues on CMU's back half, so how Donte Kent and company hold up will be key.
Key to victory: Score 30-plus points
Toledo has scored over 30 points just twice this season, against an FCS opponent (Norfolk State) and one of DI-FBS' worst teams (UMass). Against equal opponents, the Rockets have struggled offensively. The Chippewas can take advantage of this if the offense is clicking.
Getting players like Pimpleton and Nichols involved early and often will be key. It won't be easy to rack up points against the Rocket defense, but the Chippewas have as good of playmakers as anyone in the MAC. If Daniel Richardson can lead the offense to multiple early scores, the Chippewas will be in good shape.
MORE COVERAGE: Best and worst of last decade of Chippewas' homecoming
Toledo (3-3, 1-1 MAC) at Central Michigan (3-3, 1-1 MAC)
All-time series: Toledo 27-19-3
Last meeting: Toledo 24, CMU 23 (Dec. 12, 2020)
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
Stadium: Kelly/Shorts Stadium
Location: Mount Pleasant, Michigan
Odds: Toledo -4.5
TV: CBS Sports Network (Chris Lewis, Ben Leber)
Radio: 98.5 WUPS, Varsity Network (Adam Jaksa, Brock Gutierrez, Chris Jared)