MAC leaders Ohio, Toledo meet tonight
ATHENS — If you’re around Athens tonight, it might be worth getting a ticket to the Ohio-Toledo game.
There’s a strong possibility it will serve as a preview of the Mid-American Conference championship game, which will be played Saturday, Dec. 2, at Ford Field in Detroit. Ohio leads the East Division, while Toledo leads the West Division.
“On paper, it shows a great football game, and I expect that will be the case,” said Ohio coach Frank Solich. “Both teams have a lot of talent. … They’re just a solid football program that’s been that way since the time I’ve been in the MAC, and that’s 13 years. I have a tremendous amount of respect for what they’ve gotten done and continue to do.”
Toledo coach Jason Candle expressed similar sentiments about the key MAC game that is on ESPN2 at 7 p.m. at OU’s Peden Stadium, which ends a three-game homestand for the Bobcats.
“They are a very well-coached team,” he said. “Coach Solich has done an amazing job with the program. They can put points on the board. The quarterback has really settled in and is having a great year. You have to be sound in everything you do on defense and upset his rhythm. They are sound on defense, and they don’t beat themselves.”
Both teams are coming off of big conference wins last week. Ohio (7-2, 4-1) defeated rival Miami 45-28, while the Rockets (7-2, 5-0) downed Northern Illinois 27-17. Toledo’s lone loss of the season was to No. 10 Miami, Fla. (52-30), while Ohio dropped games against Purdue (44-21) and Central Michigan (26-23).
“That’s a tough team to beat. Those kids certainly believe they can win any game they go play,” Candle said. “I’m also proud of our guys and their effort. We battled through some adversity in the game, but we’ve also played some tough defense after the blocked punt and held them to a field goal.”
If Ohio wants to maintain its slim hold on the East Division, the Bobcats will need to figure out a way to contain Toledo quarterback Logan Woodside. The senior completed 23-of-31 passes for 361 yards as he became the all-time leader in passing yards (9,288) for the school. He needs just two touchdown passes to break Bruce Gradkowski’s career record of 85. The game features the MAC’s top two offenses.
“He’s playing like a senior quarterback should play,” Candle said. “Our challenge to him in the offseason was to impact the other 10 guys around him positively. He’s a guy that’s in this building a lot. He’s invested in his play as an individual and helping our team play well. I would expect him to be playing like he is.”
Solich isn’t shocked by Woodside’s performance. The three-year starter put had an unreal 2016, which included 4,129 passing yards and 45 touchdowns. His stats may not be as impressive this year, but he’s still as dangerous.
“Offensively they are a very dynamic football team. Woodside is a great quarterback, and he is great at both throwing and running,” Solich said. “His running will hurt you every bit as much. You can’t relax a moment with him, and he’s throwing to a lot of really good receivers.”
Sophomore Diontae Johnson had a career-high 10 receptions for 166 yards in the win over NIU, and it’s the fourth time he has eclipsed 100 yards receiving in a game this season.
The Rockets will also turn senior Terry Swanson loose on the ground. He became the seventh Toledo player to rush for more than 3,000 career yards with his 116-yard performance against Northern Illinois.
“They’re a complete football team. There’s not a question about it,” Solich said. “They are good on both sides of the ball and on special teams. We’re going to have our hands full. They’ve played great throughout the course of the season.”
However, the Bobcats enter tonight’s game knowing they can get the win. Ohio ended a 12-game losing skid to the Rockets with a 31-26 victory at Toledo in 2016.
Ohio sophomore quarterback Nathan Rourke has been dynamic this season both running and passing. He has rushed for 16 touchdowns – second-best all-time for a single season – and he’s thrown 13 touchdowns and just three interceptions in nine games. He’s also the team’s second-leading rusher with 553 yards on 89 carries.
“He’s an outstanding passer and a really good runner,” Solich said. “Ever since he got here – he got here in the summer – and he’s been able to do some 7-on-7. The players reported he really throws the ball well, seems to be composed and so you hope that carries over into fall camp, which it did. Then you need to see it carry over into games. Nathan won the starting job as we got into the season. I don’t think his passing stats really show what he’s all about in the passing game.”
Junior A.J. Ouellette is still Ohio’s workhorse in the running attack. He is averaging 91.9 yards a game and has scored six touchdowns. Senior Brendan Cope and junior Andrew Meyer are the Bobcats’ top receiving threats. Cope has 31 receptions for 436 yards, while Meyer has 25 for 361 yards.
Solich is pleased with OU’s offensive attack but is even happier with his defensive unit that held Miami to 98 rushing yards.
“I think our defense is continuing to improve,” he said.
Senior Quentin Poling had 10 tackles against Miami and leads the team with 80.
“He’s had a great career here, and the stats show it, but beyond the stats, he has been an amazing young man,” Solich said. “Very bright man and he’s a coach on the field for us. The players see him as not only a great football player, but also a great leader.”