Mobile, AL (SportsNetwork.com) - In the final bowl game before the College Football National Championship, the Toledo Rockets will meet the Arkansas State Red Wolves at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in the 16th installment of the GoDaddy Bowl.
Toledo compiled an 8-4 record during the regular season, including a 7-1 mark in Mid-American Conference play. The Rockets won the final two games of the regular season, and are making their second appearance in the GoDaddy Bowl (it was known as the GMAC Bowl back in 2005, though). Toledo is 9-4 all-time in bowl games.
Arkansas State, of the Sun Belt Conference, nearly backed into the postseason, but saved itself from a three-game losing streak to end the season with a win over New Mexico State. The Red Wolves have made it to an unprecedented four consecutive GoDaddy Bowls, going 2-1 in their previous three trips to the bowl that features a MAC and Sun Belt school.
The GoDaddy Bowl marks the third time in history Toledo and Arkansas State will meet on the football field. The Rockets own a 2-0 all-time lead over the Red Wolves, with victories coming during the 1990 and 1992 seasons in Toledo.
Toledo needed a few things to go right in the final week of the regular season for the Ohio-based program to make it to the MAC championship game. But the Rockets were left on the outside looking in when it came to vying for a conference championship. Now they'll turn to their focus on trying to make it 3-0 against ASU all-time. Toledo averaged 247.3 rushing ypg as a unit this season, as sophomore back Kareem Hunt (173 carries, 1,360 yards, 11 touchdowns) led the way for the ground game despite missing three contests due to injury. Terry Swanson (six rushing touchdowns) is also a dangerous threat.
Perhaps the Rockets are wondering what could have been, had regular starting quarterback Phillip Ely not been lost to an ACL tear two games into the season. However, backup Logan Woodside performed admirably in Ely's absence this season, as Woodside passed for 2,087 yards and 19 touchdowns against just seven interceptions, helping the Rockets to average 34.4 ppg.
Alonzo Russell (team-best eight touchdown receptions) and Corey Jones (team- best 66 catches and 812 yards) are the top two targets in the passing game for Woodside. Both receivers are averaging over 60 ypg through the air. Big receiver Justin Olack is third on the team with 19 receptions for 287 yards and four touchdowns.
The Rockets won games this season thanks to a strong offense, but lost games because of a defense that seemed to struggle from time to time to slow opponents down. Toledo gave up 29.3 ppg this season and over 400 total yards of offense each game. It was especially troublesome against the pass, as Toledo allowed 282.4 passing ypg and 32 passing scores this season.
Linebacker Junior Sylvestre led the team in tackles, registering 94 stops with 9.5 tackles for loss, five pass breakups and four quarterback hurries. He and Trent Voss (11 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks) will be looking to keep Arkansas State's run game at bay, while Christian Dukes (10 pass breakups) and cornerback Jordan Haden (three interceptions) will be in charge of containing the Red Wolves' pass attack. Haden is questionable to play however, with an undisclosed listed injury.
"We are honored to be chosen to play in the GoDaddy Bowl and looking forward to playing a very good Arkansas State team," said Toledo coach Matt Campbell. "If the hospitality we received today is any indication, we are going to have a terrific bowl experience when we travel back here."
Toledo will have its hands full trying to contain athletic signal caller Fredi Knighten for Arkansas State. The quarterback did it all in 2014, passing for a team-leading 2,874 yards and 19 touchdowns (against just seven interceptions), and added 11 rushing touchdowns with 775 yards on the ground. Knighten alone accounted for 239.5 passing ypg and 64.6 rushing ypg. He led the Red Wolves to 36.1 ppg this season, which included a 68-point outburst in the team's most recent clash against New Mexico State.
Like the Rockets, Arkansas State finds itself relying heavily on the run game. The Red Wolves enter the GoDaddy Bowl averaging 229.0 rushing ypg with 35 of their touchdowns this season scored on the ground. Michael Gordon accounted for the good chunk of that total, rushing for 1,064 yards and 13 touchdowns on 149 carries this year. He and Knighten make up much of the run game, with Johnston White (six touchdowns) contributing to the cause.
With a focus on the run game, the Red Wolves haven't had many breakout players through the air this season. Tres Houston leads the team with 51 receptions, for 607 yards and three touchdowns. Dijon Paschal tops the squad with 642 yards and four receiving scores.
"We installed the game plan before we left (for Christmas break), and we're going back through it again," said Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson. "As much as anything, we're just trying to get readjusted. You can tell the guys were focused in meetings, and they've got a healthy respect for our opponent. They've watched enough tape to know that Toledo is a good football team, so I think they are prepared in that sense."
Defensively, the Red Wolves may find it difficult to slow down a strong Toledo run game. Arkansas State is allowing opponents to gain 191.9 rushing ypg this season, and has surrendered 27 touchdowns on the ground in 12 games played. Overall, the Red Wolves are giving up 27.8 ppg to opponents, and hasn't held a challenger to fewer than 35 points in each of the team's last three games.
Linebacker Qushaun Lee enters the bowl game leading his team in tackles, having registered 96 stops this season. But Lee's stat line goes beyond the tackles, as he's also recorded seven tackles for loss, four interceptions and two forced fumbles. Defensive end/linebacker Ja'Von Rolland-Jones tops the Red Wolves with 12 tackles for loss and eight sacks in 2014, but he's missed the last two games with a knee injury. He will not suit up for the GoDaddy Bowl. Defensive back Artez Brown (four interceptions, five pass breakups) will likely lock onto either Russell or Jones in an attempt to defend the pass.