Blue and Gold Illustrated

Sept. 11, 2021

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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32 SEPT. 11, 2021 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED GAME PREVIEW: TOLEDO BY TYLER HORKA M aybe 2020 was a sign Toledo has rounded a corner going into head coach Jason Can- dle's sixth season. The Rockets finished 4-2. The two losses came by a combined six points to Western Michigan and Ball State, the only two teams that finished ahead of them in the Mid-American West Divi- sion. Prior to the start of the 2021 sea- son, Toledo was picked to finish sec- ond in the West behind Ball State by the media. Perhaps the gap between those two teams isn't as close as the 27-24 final score from last fall would suggest. Ball State took a commanding 27-9 lead over Toledo early in the fourth quarter. The Rockets battled back, though, with a pair of touchdown receptions from wide receiver Bryce Mitchell, who's entering his senior season. Mitchell's two scores embodied the theme of what Toledo is trying to do at this stage in Candle's tenure: battle back. The players have taken it upon themselves to get Toledo back to playing highly respectably in the MAC. "When you have player-driven ac- countability and player-driven au- thenticity and player-driven goals and dreams, good things happen," Candle said. "It's not always a coaching staff that has to do that, and I think that's a good thing." The Candle era started in earnest when Toledo beat No. 24 Temple 32-17 in the 2015 Boca Raton Bowl. Candle re- placed former Toledo head coach Matt Campbell, who took the Iowa State head coaching job before bowl season. The Rockets went 9-4 and 11-3 in Candle's first two seasons, but they lost their bowl game both years. The next two years, Toledo went 7-6 with a bowl loss and 6-6 without a bowl appear- ance. Though it didn't end in a postsea- son appearance, Toledo's 4-2 record in last year's abbreviated season was just what Candle and company needed. It showed the MAC the Rockets could be competitive in every game. The 2019 season was wrought with blowout losses — a 38-point margin against Ball State, a 19-point defeat at Buffalo, a 42-point drubbing at Central Michigan and even a 13-point loss to 3-9 Bowling Green. Even the 11-win season in 2017 wasn't without lopsided losses. Toledo lost to No. 14 Miami 52-30, Ohio 38-10 and Appalachian State 34-0. Candle has some inexplicably poor performances on his résumé. This year, he has a roster that shouldn't succumb to many more blowouts — if any at all. Mitchell is one of nine returning play- ers who have made All-MAC teams at some point in their career. Six returners made All-MAC in 2020. The Rockets also have 16 "super seniors" — players who chose to take advantage of the ex- tra season of eligibility granted to them by the NCAA because of the shortened 2020 season. Center Bryce Harris is one of them. He's been on campus in Toledo since 2015. He's surrounded by a corps of other talented offensive linemen. Can- dle is excited to see that group, one that has been ravaged by injuries the last two seasons, to finally be at full strength this year. "I'm excited to see them all out there together," Candle said. "I haven't seen them together for a long time in a foot- ball game. … To be able to have their guys back in their home base and the positions I think they're the most com- fortable, I think that's going to allow that unit the opportunity jell and grow. You can't play winning football in this conference without great offensive line play." You can't play winning football in any conference without solid quarterback play, either. Candle announced fourth-year soph- omore Carter Bradley — who redshirted in 2018 and has the extra year of eligibil- ity because of COVID to work with as well — as the team's starting quarter- Facts & Figures TOLEDO AT NOTRE DAME Date: Sept. 11, 2021 Site: Notre Dame Stadium Kickoff: 2:30 p.m. ET Broadcast: Peacock Radio: This game can be heard on Notre Dame IMG affiliates. Series Facts: This is the first ever matchup between the Fighting Irish and Rockets. Head coaches: Toledo — Jason Candle (39‑21, sixth season); Notre Dame — Brian Kelly (103‑39, 12th season). Noting Toledo: The Rockets went 4‑2 in the COVID‑shortened 2020 season. A solid sea‑ son in which Toledo only lost to Ball State and Western Michigan, the top two teams in the Mid‑American Conference's West Division, was just what head coach Jason Candle needed after a 7‑6 showing in 2018 and a 6‑6 campaign in 2019 that ended a string of five straight bowl appearances … Toledo ranked No. 10 nationally in ESPN's "stability rankings," which measure coaching stability, roster stability and performance stability based on recent results and returning production. The Rockets have one of the most experienced rosters in college football, and Candle is motivated to get the program back to threatening for double‑digit win seasons like it was for a large portion of the last decade … Toledo went 11‑3 as recently as 2017. Candle could have his team in a posi‑ tion to threaten Ball State for the West division title. READY FOR LAUNCH The Rockets haven't won a bowl game since 2015, but are trending upward after a promising shortened season in 2020 Carter Bradley, a fourth-year sophomore, will start at quarterback in the Rockets' season opener. Last year, he threw for a career-high 432 yards and three touchdowns against Northern Illinois Dec. 5, a season-high mark among all quarterbacks in the MAC. PHOTO COURTESY TOLEDO ATHLETICS

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