Toledo Rocket’s first MAC loss of the season was a tough oneWritten by Nate Pentecost | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Tied at 27 and facing 4th-and-1 at the Ball State 14 near the midway mark of the fourth quarter, Matt Campbell was confronted by, perhaps, his most difficult decision yet as the first-year head coach of the Rockets — kick a field goal or risk it and go for the first down and the touchdown.
Campbell chose the latter, and when running back David Fluellen was stopped for no gain on the play Campbell was left to watch as the Cardinals marched down the field to capitalize on his mistake in the waning minutes of a 34-27 loss at the Glass Bowl Tuesday night.
“It’s one of those things that you can look back on and hindsight is twenty-twenty,” Campbell said. “I really felt we were in a groove and we had just converted on the 4th-and-1 the last time we were down there so we thought we had a pretty good beat on what they were going to do.”
In fairness, Campbell’s was one of many mistakes made by the newly ranked midnight blue in gold. Poor secondary play in the early going and three personal foul penalties in the first half alone locked UT in 17-all tie with the Cardinals at the half.
“Emotions were high. It’s important to our kids,” Campbell said. “But those errors were huge and we allowed them to get cheap yardage. If we want to get where we want to go we have to correct those mistakes and hopefully this will be a great learning experience.”
UT Linebacker Dan Molls, who recorded a game-high 16 tackles, insisted that breaking into the Top 25 Sunday played no part in a lackluster performance which snapped UT’s eight game win-streak.
“Being ranked in the Top 25 had nothing to do with it,” Molls said. “We came out flat, we didn’t start fast and that’s what happens when you play from behind the entire game.”
The Cardinals wasted no time before putting up crooked numbers, scoring in just over a minute on a six-yard pass from quarterback Keith Wenning to Jamill Smith. The junior signal caller completed 7-of-8 passes for 72 yards on the drive.
Following a UT punt, a pass interference call against sophomore corner Cheatham Norrils on the ensuing drive set up a 25-yard passing touchdown from Wenning to Connor Ryan which put the Cardinals up 14-0 with a little over four minutes left in the first quarter.
Toledo cut the lead to 14-7 the following drive when Terrance Owens found junior wideout Bernard Reedy on the 25-yard play-action pass in the end zone.
A Ball State three-and-out on the next series gave way the Rockets the ball at their own 14 late in the first quarter. Owens completed two passes to Reedy for 45 yards on the drive to push Toledo into Cardinals territory.
Running back David Fluellen eluded a pack of tacklers on a 13-yard touchdown scamper which would have given Toledo the lead, but the play was negated by a block in the back and the Rockets were forced to settle for a 29-yard field goal and a 14-10 deficit.
Fluellen still ran to his sixth-straight 100 yard rushing performance, piling up 212 yards on 34 carries with a touchdown.
“Our guys were playing hard and mistakes will happen,” Fluellen said. “We all make mistakes and it’s not anyone’s fault because of penalties. We have to move on and learn from it.”
Byron Best picked off Wenning at the Toledo 19 with ten minutes left in the half to keep it a one-score game before several runs by Fluellen and quarterback Terrance Owens put the Rockets at the opposing 25.
Fluellen looked to bounce outside for another long run but was stripped in the backfield by cornerback Jason Pinkston, giving way to a 54-yard return by linebacker Tony Martin. Martin would have taken the ball in for the score but Owens cut off his angle and wrestled him to the ground at the Toledo 11.
In what has become a somewhat predictable occurrence, Jayrone Elliott came up with a huge stop in a crucial situation, taking down Wenning on 3rd-and-goal to force the Cardinals into a field goal.
Sophomore running back Cassius McDowell scooted in from four yards out on the following drive to knot the score at 17 before Wenning threw an interception to Norrils to effectively end the half.
After surrendering 135 yards and 2 touchdowns on 12-of-15 passing in the first quarter, Toledo subdued Wenning in the second, forcing two interceptions and holding him to 29 yards on 4-of-7 throwing. He finished the game with 280 yards on 29-of-42 passing.
Wenning broke the 27-all deadlock and put the dagger in Toledo’s collective heart 3rd-and-3 at the Toledo 19-yard line late in the fourth quarter, connecting with tight end Zane Fakes who fell just past the first down marker. Two plays later running back Jahwan Edwards bolted to the outside, past several UT defenders, for the decisive 15-yard score.
“We brought all the pressure and pinched everybody,” Campbell explained. “We felt like if they ran the football outside we’d let them score the touchdown and see if we could give ourselves a chance to win the game, knowing they have a good kicker and could drain the clock.”
Of course, there is no rest for the weary, as the Rockets will head to DeKalb, Ill. to clash with Northern Illinois Wednesday, Nov. 14.
The Huskies dispatched of Toledo last year, ending their hopes of collecting a Mid-American Conference title. The Rockets will need to beat NIU and Akron the following week to make a trip to the Motor City Nov. 30 for the conference championship.
“We’re going to have to study the film, learn from the mistakes that we made, evaluate ourselves and be ready tomorrow,” Campbell said. “Win, lose or draw, we have to flush it and get ourselves ready to go for a big game in DeKalb.”