Toledo’s Kareem Hunt runs in the Boca Raton Bowl against Temple last season. Hunt says the Rockets first goal is to win the MAC championship. ASSOCIATED PRESS
DETROIT — The University of Toledo football team was on the cusp last season of making the Mid-American Conference championship game for the first time since 2004.
Despite finishing the season with a 10-2 record, two late season losses to MAC West opponents Northern Illinois and Western Michigan, derailed the team’s ultimate goal.
Toledo, picked to finish second in the MAC West in the 2016 preseason poll, heads into this season with a MAC title on its mind.
“Here at Toledo, we are in a proud tradition,” first-year UT coach Jason Candle said. “We are at a school that is used to winning. The senior class last year and the football team last year raised that bar even higher. Ultimately we had a tremendous year last year, but it didn’t end the way we wanted it to with a championship. Every year that is the goal. Our expectations are to get better each and every day.”
The Rockets will again have to contend with Western Michigan, the preseason pick to win the MAC West, and Northern Illinois, which has beaten Toledo in six straight seasons. The Huskies were picked third in the preseason poll.
“The first goal is to win MAC championship,” senior running back Kareem Hunt said. “In order to do that we need to go game-by-game and play-by-play and honestly just do our jobs and we’ll be fine.”
After failing to reach the MAC championship last year, Toledo ended its season on a high note by defeating Temple in the Boca Raton Bowl in Candle’s first game as head coach.
“That was like our first step,” senior safety DeJuan Rogers said of the bowl game. “Even though it was last season, we have a new coach and it was our first step towards really becoming something.”
This season, the team has a mostly new coaching staff, including a new offensive coordinator in Brian Wright and a new defensive coordinator in Brian George.
“We have seven returners on offense coming back who were starters last year,” Candle said. “The bulk of that comes back on the offensive line with four of the five back. Nine of our top 10 offensive lineman return, so we’ll be relying on those guys for leadership. We have some explosive players offensively and we have to find ways as a coaching staff to put them in position to be successful.”
Defensively, Toledo welcomes back four starters to a unit that lost several key contributors last season. However, there is still plenty of returning talent on that side of the ball.
“We definitely have the potential to be a good defense,” Rogers said. “Everyone just needs to stay on their course and keep their mind focused in on something better. You can never be too good. If we do have a little success, we need to just stay grounded and keep pushing and keep going.”
Because of the program’s past success, expectations are always high for Toledo in the conference, even with a new coach taking over.
“They are always a threat,” Western Michigan head coach P.J. Fleck said of Toledo. “Northern Illinois has won the league six years in a row, but Toledo is really the next one when you start thinking of the people who have owned the MAC West. I don’t think they are going to skip a beat. You are going to see Toledo just continue to do what they’ve done and maybe even go higher.”
After coming so close to the MAC championship game last year, the Rockets are focused on breaking the 12-year conference title drought.
“We just need to finish,” Rogers said. “Last year we started off real good and we didn’t end that well towards the end of the season. First, second, and third quarter we were good, but we would have lapses. It might be one or two plays, but those one or two plays can cost you the game. We just have to stay consistent and stay on our course and make sure everybody is on the same page.”
Contact Brian Buckey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6110.