Toledo rallies but loses to Central Michigan in overtime

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Oct. 17—MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. — With the walls caving in and their season slipping away, the Toledo Rockets would not wilt.

Trailing Central Michigan 20-3 in the third quarter, UT gathered on the sideline and a message of resolve was delivered. The Rockets, on the wrong end of what seems like every unfathomable loss, nearly turned the tables and stole a victory from an unwitting opponent.

Instead, overtime might as well have meant out of time, because Toledo never stood a chance. A false start penalty on first down derailed the possession before it even began, and Thomas Cluckey's 51-yard field goal into a strong wind sailed wide left.

Central Michigan 26, Toledo 23.

"We have to win the margins, and right now we're not winning the margins," UT coach Jason Candle said. "We have to figure out how to do that."

In defeat, UT's offense took a giant leap forward, especially during a prolific second half. But many of the same problems stood in their way, the greatest hits in a season of ignominious moments.

Penalties. Dropped passes. Inconsistent quarterback play. A Swiss cheese offensive line.

"There are times when communication is solid," Candle said. "I feel like there are times where we break down. There are times where we don't get it to our primary read fast enough. These are new guys in there together, as far as the quarterback-offensive line relationship."

Central Michigan (4-3, 2-1 MAC West) set the tone on the game's opening series with a 14-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that featured two fourth-down conversions. The possession took up nearly half of the first quarter, already limiting a Toledo (3-4, 1-2) team that ranks last in the MAC in time of possession.

The Rockets didn't help themselves with a horrific offensive showing in the first half, totaling three points, seven first downs, and 127 yards. The first 30 minutes of quarterback Dequan Finn's first career start were two quarters to forget, as he completed 3 of 11 passes and ran in reverse more often than upfield.

Everything was going wrong for Toledo. Even the MAC's top-ranked defense was struggling. Central Michigan had 17 points and 216 yards, including 103 rushing yards. The Chippewas were out-playing and out-coaching the Rockets in the most important game of the season.

"We knew what we needed to do to make the adjustments," Finn said.

A halftime post on a popular UT message board pointed out that several I-475 exits are going to be closed next Saturday for construction, noting that it was a good thing that routes to the Glass Bowl will be limited.

All the while, UT coach Jason Candle kept his cool on the sideline. As the mistakes and deficit grew, he stood stone-faced. At times, he paced. But a sense of quiet determination was evident.

"It's a resilient group of kids and a mature group of kids," Candle said. "These guys are fighters, guys you love to be around every day, and guys you love to coach."

The second half would be Toledo's best 30 minutes of offense all season, as it scored 20 points on 226 yards. In the fourth quarter alone, the Rockets averaged almost seven yards per play.

Running back Bryant Koback finished with 126 total yards, and wide receiver Isiah Winstead caught four passes for 108 yards.

"I felt like we fought our butts off after handling the adversity," said Finn, who finished 15 of 32 for 208 yards with 43 rushing yards and two touchdowns. "I give a bunch of credit to the whole team. We did what we could do to try and get the victory."

With less than three minutes left, UT trailed 20-13 and took over at its own 29-yard line. Finn proved to be up to the challenge, leading a seven-play scoring drive with the efficiency and tranquility of a multi-year starter.

He capped the drive with an 18-yard touchdown run with 35 seconds left.

"The first half, I was a little anxious getting my first start," said Finn, who was sacked seven times. "I was just trying to get the butterflies out of my system. Once the second half began, I started to settle down and make the appropriate throws and the appropriate reads."

Toledo chose to kick the extra point and take its chances in overtime, in large part because of its defense. All the room that Central Michigan found in the first half disappeared, as the Chippewas were held to two first downs and 111 yards after halftime.

"DQ took a hit [at the end of regulation] and we were up against the clock a little bit," Candle said. "I thought our defense would get a stop, and they did. I felt good about overtime. I thought we had good momentum, and the emotion of a good fourth quarter and would have a chance to win in overtime."

In overtime, the Rockets stuffed Central Michigan on 3rd-and-1 to force a 38-yard field goal. On the ensuing possession, Toledo was flagged for a false start on first down, threw an incomplete pass in the end zone on 1st-and-15, completed a 3-yard pass on second down, took a 6-yard sack on third down, a missed a field goal on fourth down, Cluckey's third miss of the game.

The perseverance and tenacity can't be questioned. But the results — yet another loss — are starting to pile up in the wrong direction, testing even the most resolute members of the Rockets.

"I think our team is playing really good football at times, and we haven't got the results the last two weeks that we want," Candle said. "The mistakes on the videotape are still going to be there. You have to tell yourself the truth and give our kids a chance to fix their mistakes."

First Published October 16, 2021, 10:07pm

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