The Toledo Rockets traveled the short distance down I-75 to Doyt Perry Stadium on Saturday with the knowledge that their game with the Bowling Green Falcons was essentially a must-win, if they wanted to hold onto any hope of winning the Mid-American Conference Western Division. When the Rockets arrived back in Toledo, they brought back the "Battle of I-75" Trophy and a thrilling 28-25 win that could be a catalyst for the remainder of the season.
For the Falcons, their loss on Saturday left the team with many questions and robbed them of the ability to control their own destiny in the MAC East. After beginning the season with a 5-1 record, BGSU has seen their record drop to 5-3 on the backs of two consecutive losses by a grand total of four points.
Bowling Green has been a notoriously slow starter in most games this season, and Saturday was no exception. Toledo moved the ball at will and scored touchdowns on each of their first three drives, ultimately building a 21-0 lead over the Falcons. At that point, many fans wondered if BGSU would be able to even make a game of it, much less actually come back and claim the lead for themselves.
The Falcons actually put together a nice drive to open the game, but it ultimately failed to put points on the scoreboard. BGSU drove from their own 25 all the way down to the Toledo 23 over the span of 13 plays and took nearly six minutes off the clock. Matt Johnson rushed twice for 13 yards and completed a pass to Alex Bayer for 25. However, facing a 4th-and-10, head coach Dave Clawson chose to go for the first down rather than attempt a 40-yard field goal against a strong, swirling wind. Toledo took over when Johnson's pass fell incomplete.
David Fluellen dominated UT's first drive. He carried just three times but amassed 61 yards; one of his carries went up the right sideline for 47. Unfortunately for Toledo, Fluellen left the field after his third carry with an injury and did not return. Kareem Hunt came in and did not miss a beat -- he carried once for four yards and then again for a one-yard plunge into the end zone. The 77-yard drive gave Toledo a 7-0 with 5:41 left in the first quarter.
On the ensuing kickoff, it appeared as if Bowling Green would tie the game. Ronnie Moore took the kickoff at the 2 yard line and ran up the right sideline. At the 45, he veered left across the field and broke free. However, officials ruled that he had stepped out-of-bounds when he shifted left, and BGSU was forced to start their drive at their own 45.
From there, Toledo dominated the next 15 minutes of game action. While BGSU was running six plays, punting twice and amassing just 23 yards, the Rockets earned 142 yards and two touchdowns on 26 plays.
Toledo started their second possession at their own 11 after Bowling Green's first punt of the game. The drive ended after 89 yards and 11 plays, and it consumed 8:55 from the game clock. It also ended with a series of events that helped cost BGSU the game. Kareem Hunt ran five times for 44 yards as the Rockets moved steadily downfield, but the drive stalled with a third-down incompletion at the BGSU 18. Jeremiah Detmer came in and kicked a 35-yard field goal for a 10-0 lead -- but Toledo was given a first down when Aaron Foster was flagged for a personal foul for roughing the kicker. Three plays later on third-and-goal, Terrance Owens completed short to Alonzo Russell, and it looked like another field goal attempt would take place -- until the Falcons' Cameron Truss was penalized after the play for unsportsmanlike conduct. The penalty gave Toledo a first down, and on the next play, Owens connected with Russell again. This time, it was for a five-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead.
The Rockets forced another punt and began their third drive at their own 33. This time, Toledo needed only eight plays to score. Hunt ran for 32 yards on three carries, and Owens accounted for the other 35 yards. Owens finished the drive with his second touchdown pass of the day on a nine-yard dart to Bernard Reedy. Reedy's touchdown made the score 21-0 with just 4:19 remaining in the first half.
To that point, the Rockets had run 33 plays for 214 yards, while the Falcons had just 75 yards after 19 plays. Did anyone really expect a comeback?
Expected or not, Bowling Green pulled it off. The Falcons finally got their offense going with four straight passes to open their next possession. Johnson found Jared Cohen, Tyler Beck and Heath Jackson to move the ball 27 yards to the BGSU 46. The running game then kicked in, as Johnson and Travis Greene combined for five rushes and 52 yards. Greene broke off one 21-yard run, while Johnson had a 13-yard jaunt. On third-and-goal from the 1, Johnson rolled left and dove into the end zone to finally get Bowling Green on the board. With 0:16 left in the half, BGSU had cut the lead to 21-7.
The first turnover of the game occurred on the first drive of the second half and helped continue Bowling Green's comeback effort. On third down, Owens was sacked by Gabe Martin. Owens fumbled, and D.J. Lynch recovered and returned the ball to Toledo's 29 yard line. Aided in part by a roughing-the-passer penalty on Toledo's Marquise Moore) (on a very ill-advised halfback pass by Jordan Hopgood), BGSU drove to the Toledo 1 after seven plays. Clawson was poised to try to punch the ball into the end zone on fourth-and-goal from there, but a false start penalty erased that idea. Tyler Tate kicked a 23-yard field goal and cut the UT lead to 21-10.
The Rockets held the ball for nearly five minutes after the BGSU field goal, but a false start penalty derailed the drive and forced a punt. Ryan Burbrink made a fair catch at his own 23, and from there, BGSU went on another scoring drive. Greene started with a 20-yard run, and then Johnson passes to Jackson and Shaun Joplin moved the ball to the Toledo 25 as the third quarter concluded. Greene carried 16 yards on the first play of the final quarter, and then carried again for a seven-yard touchdown immediately after. Johnson passed to Bayer for the two-point conversion, and with almost the entire final quarter remaining, the Falcons trailed just 21-18.
Toledo was hurt yet again by a penalty by their offense when they got the ball back. On third-and-five at their own 45, Owens threw a great pass that Russell caught for a 28-yard gain to the BGSU 27. However, officials ruled that Russell pushed off, resulting in an offensive pass interference penalty. UT was ultimately forced to punt.
Could BGSU actually take the lead? Yes. Starting at their own 16, the Falcons traveled 84 yards in just ten plays. The amazing thing about this drive was that three of those plays were negative. Greene lost four yards on the first play, setting up a second-and-14 situation, then Johnson was later sacked for seven yards on another first down play. Despite those issues, the Falcons converted three different third down plays on the drive, including an 18-yard run by Johnson and a 30-yard pass from Johnson to Joplin. Greene ran 19 yards on third-and-seven for the final conversion, then carried the ball for seven yards into the end zone on the next play. Tate's extra point gave Bowling Green an incredible 25-point run and the 25-21 lead with 5:54 left in regulation.
Toledo responded in the best way it possibly could. Owens connected with Reedy for 32 yards on the second play after the BGSU touchdown to move the ball to the BGSU 38. From there, Owens led the Rockets to the 13 yard line. He passed short to Dwight Macon on third-and-11, but rather than face a fourth down play, Toledo had to face a third-and-26. Reedy was called for pass interference on the completion to Macon, and the Falcons were poised to finish off the comeback. Owens had a different idea. He scrambled up the middle for 17 yards to set up a manageable fourth-and-nine. On fourth down, Owens threw an absolute laser to Russell, who caught the ball just one yard into the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown reception. Toledo led 28-25, but BGSU had 1:22 and only needed a field goal to tie.
The Falcons tried desperately to make something happen, and for a moment, it appeared that Johnson had completed a pass to Joplin deep down the left sideline. Unfortunately, he dropped the pass, and Johnson's incompletion on the next play ended Bowling Green's hopes. Toledo took two knees and celebrated their unbelievable 28-25 win.
Toledo outgained Bowling Green 372-343 overall and 242-135 on the ground. Each team was very good on third downs (BGSU - 9/15, Toledo 5/11) and both were 4-for-4 in the red zone. Owens' fumble on the opening drive of the second half was the game's only turnover. And somehow, through EIGHT games, Bowling Green still has not allowed a made field goal.
Owens threw for only 130 yards but completed 15 of 23 passes and threw three touchdowns and no interceptions. Johnson was 17-for-26 with 208 yards and also had no interceptions, but he did not manage a touchdown pass.
Hunt carried 21 times for 114 yards and a touchdown to complement Fluellen's 61 yards on Toledo's initial possession. Owens also contributed 59 yards on ten rushes. For BGSU, Greene fell just short of another 100-yard day as he earned 96 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries. Johnson added 29 yards and a touchdown.
Just four receivers caught Owens' passes for Toledo. Russell took in eight of those for 56 yards and two touchdowns. Reedy had 60 yards and a touchdown after three catches. Hunt added three catches of his own. BGSU's Heath Jackson had easily the best day of his career, as he posted seven receptions for 72 yards to lead the Falcon effort. Joplin also had three catches and 64 yards.
On defense, Junior Sylvestre had 12 tackles and sacked Johnson three times for 22 yards. The Rockets earned six sacks in total. D.J. Lynch led BGSU's effort with nine tackles.
Toledo (5-3, 3-1 MAC) now has three straight games at home. The Rockets host Eastern Michigan next Saturday (7:00 p.m., ESPN3). After that, it's two HUGE games -- first versus Buffalo on Tuesday, Nov. 12, then Northern Illinois eight days later on Wednesday, Nov. 20. The Rockets close the season at Akron on the day after Thanksgiving.
Bowling Green (5-3, 3-1 MAC) is now tied with Ohio for second in the Eastern Division and is one game behind Buffalo. The Falcons play both in their final four games, but three of those four are on the road. First, they play at winless Miami in just over one week on Tuesday, Nov. 5 (8:00 p.m., ESPNU). Their final home game is one week later, on Tuesday, Nov. 12 in a near must-win tilt with the Ohio Bobcats. They get another mini-bye before playing at Eastern Michigan on Saturday, Nov. 23. The Falcons then close the season with what may be a winner-take-all game against Buffalo on Friday, Nov. 29. That game will be played at Ralph Wilson Stadium (home of the NFL's Buffalo Bills).