Toledo, Akron give MAC title game new blood

Geoff Robinson
The Detroit News

Detroit — What took so long?

Toledo and Akron will be making their first visits in more than a decade to Ford Field for the Mid-American Conference championship game when they square off on Saturday afternoon.

Since winning the first-ever championship game played at Ford Field in 2004, Toledo finally gets to make the 62-mile trek north on I-75.

It’s a bit odd that the Rockets haven’t made a return trip to downtown Detroit in that span considering the run of success the program has had this decade. Toledo (10-2, 7-1) has won nine or more games in six of the past seven seasons, but it could never quite get over the hump and capture the MAC West until now.

“We’ve been watching this on TV the past couple of years,” Toledo head coach Jason Candle said. “Many of our past players and coaches, with all due respect to them, that doesn’t matter to us. It’s about this team, this year and these guys finishing off what they set out to do.”

Senior quarterback Logan Woodside was named MAC Offensive Player of the Year. He threw for 3,451 yards, 24 touchdowns and three interceptions as the Rockets ran through the division.

Woodside’s journey hasn’t always been a smooth one. After starting 10 games for the Rockets in 2014 as a redshirt freshman, he was benched in favor of Alabama transfer Phillip Ely in 2015.

For Woodside, Saturday is a chance to finish the job on his terms.

“We’ve come really close,” Woodside said. “We’ve harped on it as seniors to get over the hump, but tomorrow’s just another opportunity to put on that (uniform) and go out and play.”

The Rockets ran roughshod over Akron (7-5) the first time the teams met in October, cruising to a 48-21 win in which Woodside threw for 304 yards and five touchdowns.

Zips coach Terry Bowden knows he’ll have his hands full when he sees the fifth-year senior again on Saturday.

“He’s just the best quarterback in the league right now,” Bowden said. “His ability to run that offense and to make plays makes him a very fine quarterback. If it wasn’t us, I’d enjoy watching him play.”

Akron (7-5, 6-2) is a bit of a surprise entrant in this year’s title game. The Zips were picked to finish fourth in the East, while Toledo was the preseason favorite to win the league.

After the suspension of senior quarterback Tommy Woodson due to a violation of team rules in early November, the Zips turned things over to freshman quarterback Kato Nelson with three games remaining. Nelson wasn’t able to deliver a win in his first start against Miami (Ohio), but he bounced back against Ohio to deliver a victory that would prove to be the difference in the East Division race.

“(He’s) played very well,” Bowden said. “Every single play he plays, he gets better. It’s turned into a nice situation to have. I feel like he’s going to be one of the up-and-coming quarterbacks in the conference.”

Woodson returned to the sidelines for the season finale at Kent State, but it was Nelson who took all the snaps from under center.

Bowden hasn’t committed to a signal caller for Saturday, but given Nelson’s start in last week’s title-clinching game, it would be a surprise if Woodson got the call after nearly a month of no action

“Nelson’s a little more of a threat to make some plays with his feet,” Candle said. “But I would expect both of those guys to play. It makes it hard to prepare for two guys.”

In the previous meeting between the two teams, Woodson went 18-for-33 through the air for 205 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.

Geoff Robinson is a freelance writer.