University of Toledo receiver Jon'Vea Johnson (7) celebrates scoring a touchdown against Ball State with Corey Jones during Wednesday's win vs. Ball State. BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH
The University of Toledo claims Ohio’s lone winning Division I college football program within 140 miles.
Of course, a visitor in town for Wednesday’s home finale never would know it.
The Rockets can feel like strangers in their own city this time of year. When Ohio State and Michigan are rolling — or existing — we all know what happens. The Big Ten behemoths swallow our area whole.
Just look at the in-your-face scarlet and blue front displays at JCPenney or Dick’s or, really, anywhere. Or which teams get the monster local TV ratings. Not long ago, the New York Times commissioned a ZIP-code-by-ZIP-code survey — based on Facebook likes of favorite teams — of how the nation roots for college football.
One representative local precinct reported: 51 percent Ohio State, 18 percent Michigan, 11 percent Toledo.
Which seemed ordinary enough. Until you noticed the ZIP code: 43606. The address for the University of Toledo.
But that’s reality. Always will be. Although we have questions about the Facebook poll, every Mid-American Conference program planted smack in the middle of Big Ten land faces the same age-old struggle for local attention. We’re not out to change the world here.
No, consider this instead a reminder the Rockets are authoring a pretty good story of their own this season.
The hometown show rolled on with Toledo’s 37-19 win against Ball State. As a broth of fog engulfed the Glass Bowl — a blindfold would have improved our view from the press box — the Rockets’ road to their first league championship in 12 years came into clear view.
All that’s left now is the showdown of the conference year. Black Friday. Toledo (9-2, 6-1) at No. 14 Western Michigan (10-0, 6-0). MAC West title on the line.
For as dynamic as this record-setting Rockets offense can be and as untested as the Broncos remain — a 45-31 victory against Eastern Michigan is their lone FBS victory against a team with a winning record — Western still will be a good-sized favorite. But Toledo has the chance it covets (again) to shed its bridesmaid tag and transform from an annual November tease into a December champion.
Dare we say it’s the kind of plot line that can transcend the Rockets’ core of supporters and capture the attention of the city.
How important is it for Toledo to be behind the program?
“It's very important,” first-year Rockets coach Jason Candle said. “It's what you work for. That's what you want. We don't have a professional sports team in our city. We have enough people here in our town that we should have a packed stadium each and every week rallying around our football team.
“There's been good football played here for decades. I think that can get overlooked, and sometimes you can be spoiled a little bit. But our goal is to win every game and stay competitive and play at the end of the season when it matters most, and we're here. We have the opportunity to control our own destiny. Hopefully, our city rallies around that.”
In fairness, a lot of people already do. The Glass Bowl might have been half full Wednesday, but this was as good of a crowd as you’ll see for a weeknight MAC game anywhere. When the conference tells fans it doesn’t care about them with these chilled made-for-TV November games, we applaud anyone who still supports the product.
Truthfully, though this is partly a product of a metro area of 600,000, Toledo might have the biggest fan base in the MAC. Per usual, the Rockets averaged about 23,000 fans for their four Saturday home dates this year.
That Facebook fan map? A little misleading. For one, Rockets supporters tend to skew older. For another, most area fans claim a Big Ten team and a MAC team. Toledo more than holds its own locally.
Still, we all know the reality, especially this time of the year.
It never hurts to remind of another good story unfolding in our backyard.
“I know a lot of teams get a lot of publicity,” Toledo senior safety DeJuan Rogers said. “But I just look at it like this: When it's time to hear about the Rockets, you will.”