It’s absolutely wild to think about it, but the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team is just two days away from playing their second game of the year.
Because it was played on Sunday of a long holiday weekend, it feels like all of us are still recovering from the Irish’s anxiety-filled, near-collapse, overtime win at Florida State in the season opener.
Now, whether we’re all ready or not, your #8 Notre Dame squad will host the 1-0 Toledo Rockets as their home opener, inviting the MACtion directly to their doorstep in a game exclusively broadcast on Peacock.
The Rockets are hot off a 49-10 evisceration of Norfolk State last week and a 4-2 record in 2020, boasting a pretty efficient offense and some not untalented defensive players, led by former ND linebacker Jonathan Jones.
Knowing not much more than that about this first-time opponent for the Irish, I reached out to my good friends at Hustle Belt (like any intelligent person would), and Managing Editor/Editor-in-Chief Alan Rucker was generous enough to provide some excellent answers to some pointed questions, despite the quick turnaround of a post-holiday short week making just about everything in all our lives more chaotic than we wanted it to be.
We chatted about head coach Jason Candle, the Rockets’ offense, key playmakers on both sides of the ball, the Glass Bowl, MAC mascot rankings, and more — so let’s go ahead and jump into it.
1. Toledo opened the year with an efficient and dominant 49-10 shellacking of Norfolk State. Despite the less-than-stellar opponent, what did the game tell you/confirm about this 2021 Toledo team and how you expect their season to play out?
Alan Rucker: I think the less-than-stellar nature of Norfolk State makes extrapolating out anything difficult, if not outright impossible. It confirmed that what we thought about Toledo — namely that they are a balanced, experienced team capable of laying the wood to someone — was correct.
But that isn’t breaking news. That’s what Toledo has done year in and year out in our little football rust belt. What this game did confirm was that new QB Carter Bradley is a totally fine replacement for Eli Peters.
2. Jason Candle has had a pretty successful tenure at Toledo so far. What are your thoughts on him as a coach, on the direction of the program under him, and whether he might get snatched up by a bigger program anytime soon?
Alan Rucker: Candle is sort of a curious case as MAC coaches go. The general character arc for head coaches is jump at the peak of your marketability, and there are more than a few examples of this: Brady Hoke after an undefeated Ball State season, PJ Fleck after crashing the BCS with Western Michigan, Turner Gill to the Kansas wasteland, on and on and on.
Candle’s first two years at Toledo were incredible and simply business as usual for the Rockets: 20-7 overall and 13-3 in the conference. And as is usually the case in the MAC, after a run of success comes a bit of a dip.
Maybe Candle loves where he is at. Maybe he is looking for the right opportunity. It’s hard to say, really, but the thing that isn’t hard to say is he’s a great coach with a consistent winner and culture. In a conference like the MAC, that matters even more than others.
3. Who are the big playmakers to know on the Toledo offense — who could give the Notre Dame defense some trouble on Saturday?
Alan Rucker: Trouble is all about perspective. Does Bradley come out and toss 300 yards and four scores? Not likely. But he’s also not likely to make stupid decisions and force throws when there is no window to throw into. Though the dreaded “game manager” moniker is like a death sentence, on some level to pull an upset the first thing on the list is don’t beat yourself. That’s something that Bradley is capable of.
When the Rockets aren’t passing, Bryant Koback is THE name to know. Will he have the same success against the Irish that he had against Norfolk State? Not likely. But let’s not forget that he has averaged roughly 1300 yards and 15 touchdowns over the last 2+ seasons. You don’t put up that kind of line unless you are a capable back.
There’s also the Toledo receivers that are all highly capable and skilled, but it’s worth nothing that they are that for the MAC. That’s not a knock, just the reality of the situation.
4. The Irish offensive line looked very beatable against Florida State — does the Toledo defensive front seven have any guys who could exploit that weakness and wreak some havoc in the backfield?
Alan Rucker: Again, it’s a matter of perspective. Florida State and Toledo — even a down Seminoles squad and an amazing Rocket squad — still have a large gap in talent and potential.
What Toledo has going for it is experience. Usually in games where a MAC squad is going to a marquee opponent, there’s just a feeling of being overwhelmed and the team being swallowed up by the moment. That won’t happen with this Toledo team.
But at the end of the day, football is a game that is won or lost in the trenches and the defensive line is probably the hardest positions to recruit for. The only hope for Toledo is to play loose, play fast, play reckless, and hope the chips fall your way at least some of the time.
5. Are there any key names to know in the Rockets secondary, and how do you think the Toledo pass defense will hold up against Jack Coan and all the receivers at his disposal?
Alan Rucker: In my opinion, and you know what they say about opinions and body parts, this is the critical matchup. If Coan has a game like last week, Toledo has no chance. Sure, they may keep it close for a quarter or two, but if Coan has a relatively pedestrian day, it’s a 20-25 point Irish win. A big day? Then count on a larger spread.
But maybe…just maybe...Coan makes a mistake or two. Could that build enough momentum for the Irish to get a little tight and the Rockets to really buy into the “playing with house money” sort of mindset that usually leads to good results? Perhaps. But it’s a big ask. A very big ask.
Much the same way the defensive line was characterized previously, at the end of the day there is a fairly sizable gap between a Notre Dame style receiver and a MAC level secondary, even an experienced and successful one like Toledo.
6. FAN QUESTION:
Can you throw stones if you play in a Glass Bowl?— Tyler James (@TJamesNDI) September 6, 2021
Alan Rucker: The eternal question, isn’t it?
On a purely Golden Rule type of benchmark, you shouldn’t be throwing stones at all. Or perhaps you are without sin. In which case, welcome back Jesus… we have a lot to talk about since you were last hanging around.
7. FAN QUESTION:
If their QB stands in that protective area safeguarded by his linemen, would they say he's technically a pocket rocket?— Well, Now What? (@unhassledHoff) September 6, 2021
Alan Rucker: Yes, but a high powered one. He won’t be quiet about it and the people around him are going to know he’s there.
Then they’ll start to wonder, look around, try to figure out who’s being a little dirty bird and it’s going to make Thanksgiving Dinner super awkward.
Don’t ask me how I know. Take my word for it.
8. Where would you rank Toledo’s mascots — Rocky the Rocket and Rocksy the Rockette — among the rest of the MAC schools’ mascots? Use whatever criteria you wish to make your rankings, just please explain why you made the choices you did.
Alan Rucker: As a LIVE MASCOT GUY, the NIU Husky is far and away the best mascot in the conference, hell, perhaps the nation. Sure, there’s the side of beef in Texas and Mike the Tiger in Baton Rouge, but I prefer my live mascots a little understated. If you want to be all mascot GLORYBOY and just go for the big pop, then sure, stick to your tigers and steers.
There’s also Bucky Bronco, that gave us this gem:
Western Michigan's mascot is coked out. pic.twitter.com/fO6igDrQHL— Brandon Durbin (@Bdurbs) November 28, 2014
Is it snow? Is it Bolivian dancing dust that he just bumped off a pinball machine or a stripper’s lady bits? Who knows?! I don’t, and you don’t either, which makes it all the better.
But I digress. Until Rocky and Rocksy either start snorting the goal lines or become an awesome dog, they are playing for no better than 3rd.
9. Okay, let’s get down to it — give me a prediction for this game. Who wins, what’s the score, and why?
Alan Rucker: I would like to throw out my homer pick and act like Toledo is going to roll into South Bend and roll out with a win. That’s what makes us fans, correct? I remember a time in my life when I stood cooking out in freezing DC weather, wearing my Brady Quinn jersey, and just counting down the minutes until he and Jeff and Darius won a massive Sugar Bowl for Charlie.
And then four hours later, I was barfing up brisket and Jameson, never hoping more that there was a God, and never more sure that there wasn’t. That was when my “win one for the good guys!” sort of takes went to die…. Sort of like when you finally realized that Santa was your Dad, or the neighbor, depending on the character of your mother.
In reality, Toledo likely keeps this close for a half and then the talent gap and experience pull away for an Irish W. It feels sort of 38-14-ish to me.
I wanna give a huge shout-out to Alan for his time and all his thoughtful responses to our questions. Make sure you head over to Hustle Belt at some point prior to Saturday’s game to devour all the insights and analysis you could ever want when it comes to the Toledo Rockets and other exciting MACtion coming up!
That’s all for this week, folks — Go Irish!