During Thanksgiving weekend and in the days shortly thereafter, Military Bowl officials found themselves unexpectedly busy as they tried to figure out which teams were going to play at RFK Stadium a month later.
One spot in the game was reserved for Navy. But the Midshipmen became ineligible on Nov. 19 following a loss at San Jose State that ensured their first losing season since 2002. The other tie-in was the eighth bowl-eligible team from the ACC, but that option unraveled when North Carolina went to the Independence Bowl.
Air Force from the Mountain West and Toledo of the Mid-American Conference eventually filled those slots, and while Military Bowl officials went down to the wire constructing the matchup, they maintain that Wednesday afternoon’s game is appealing on many fronts and could be one of the more entertaining preludes to the BCS bowls.
A top priority for the Military Bowl was to have a service academy representative, especially given the District’s proximity to the Pentagon. With Navy and Army out of the running, organizers turned their attention to Air Force (7-5), which qualified by winning its final regular season game against Colorado State, 45-21. Adding to the allure was the Falcons’ potent offense, which averaged 34.4 points per game and surpassed 40 points four times.
The Rockets (8-4) then entered the picture following a regular season in which they finished eighth in the country in scoring offense and had consecutive games with at least 60 points. Toledo scored at least 44 points in each of its last five games and has amassed 49 or more points five times.
Toledo accepted an invitation to the Military Bowl while absorbing the shock of then-coach Tim Beckman announcing his resignation to take the same position at Illinois. University officials elevated Matt Campbell, who had been the offensive coordinator for three years, to interim coach before recently naming him to the position full-time.
At 32, Campbell is the youngest head coach in the 120-member Football Bowl Subdivision. He’s more than three years younger than Western Kentucky’s Willie Taggart, who at 35 is next on that list.
“I think a lot of guys were caught off-guard a little bit because it was before the bowl game, and people were expecting [Beckman] to stick with us,” Toledo junior wide receiver Eric Page said. “But I think it worked for the better, and I hope he’s happy where he’s at. I think we’re all happy where we’re at.”
Page has been the offensive centerpiece since he arrived at the school three years ago. The first-team all-MAC selection at three positions owns the Toledo career marks for receptions (293), receiving yards (3,387) and kickoff return average (26.7) and is tied with Lance Moore of the New Orleans Saints for first in receiving touchdowns (25).
This season, Page established a Rockets single-season record for receptions (112). His 82 catches in 2009 and 99 receptions last year both rank in the top five all-time during a single season at Toledo.
The Rockets’ prolific offense features two quarterbacks who have shared playing time. Sophomore Terrance Owens has 1,812 yards and 15 touchdowns and is ranked sixth nationally in passing efficiency. Junior Austin Dantin is 15th in passing efficiency with 1,398 yards and 15 touchdowns after sitting out the final two games of the regular season with concussion symptoms. Each quarterback has thrown three interceptions.
“At quarterback that’s the most unique spot, and we get a lot of questions about it and what those kids have done,” Campbell said. “We’re going to play two quarterbacks. They do a great job, and honestly those two push our football team to be the best we can possibly be. It’s exciting to have two young men of that caliber there.”