The high-flying Toledo offense hosted NIU's star-studded defense in the Glass Bowl on Thursday night. With both teams entering with undefeated MAC records, only one could escape and continue to control its own destiny in the MAC West.
That team would be the home squad, the Toledo Rockets. Led by senior quarterback Logan Woodside, the Rockets' offense was able to get the best of Rod Carey's top 20 scoring defense. Woodside launched the pigskin for 361 yards on 23-of-31 passing to preserve Toledo's 5-0 MAC record and win a fifth-straight game for the Rockets.
Toledo opened the night with a long, methodical drive in the light rain that drizzled from the sky. Running back Terry Swanson opened the offense for Toledo, and the senior halfback finished with 116 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 29 attempts. Swanson's first score occurred at the end of the opening possession, boosting the Rockets to a 7-0 lead.
The Huskies' offense, led by quarterback Marcus Childers who entered the game undefeated as a starter, had no problem tying it up in the first quarter. Wide receiver Christian Blake tossed the ball to Childers on a trick play to get into the red zone and running back Tre Harbison — a Virginia transfer who saw his most playing time of the year on Thursday — did the dirty work within the red zone and punched it in from the goal line for a touchdown.
Several drives later, the first huge momentum shift occurred. Matt Ference, NIU's punter, booted the ball on a line drive punt to the Rockets' 1-yard line. Toledo responded with a bold play, as Woodside connected with Diontae Johnson on a deep ball. Johnson nearly beat Huskies' defenders to the end zone for a 99-yard score but was stopped short on the 10-yard line. Woodside would take it himself on the next play, but the quarterback was stripped on the 1-yard line on the QB draw.
The play was initially called a touchdown for the Rockets but upon further review, Northern Illinois forced the fumble and recovered it in its own end zone for the touchback.
Northern Illinois would also commit its first turnover of the night with the score deadlocked while in opponent territory. Childers entered Thursday night with just one interception in 127 pass attempts, but the quarterback threw the ball off of his lineman's helmet, and the ricochet caused Toledo come up with an interception on the 33-yard line to prevent an NIU score.
Right before the half, Toledo managed to alter the stagnant scoreboard. Woodside found his new favorite target Johnson on four passes on a 12-play drive. Johnson earned 42 of his 166 receiving yards on the possession, which ended in a Jameson Vest field goal. And for the second-straight week, Johnson surpassed the 160-yard receiving mark and continues his stellar play.
The road Huskies opened the second half with authority. Running back Marcus Jones, who scored the walk-off overtime touchdown against Eastern Michigan, played a key role in moving the Huskies across the field. But it would be Childers who would finish off the running backs' hard work, and the quarterback earned his fourth rushing touchdown of the season. At this point, Northern Illinois gained its first lead of the night and held a 14-10 advantage over the Rockets.
It was at this point when Toledo's seventh-ranked offense woke up and started wrecking the normally stout Northern Illinois defense. The Huskies couldn't force a three-and-out in the first half and Toledo finally started finishing its drives. Woodside hooked up with Johnson several times but Swanson finished the job on a 13-yard rush and Toledo reclaimed a 17-14 lead.
After a Huskies' three-and-out, Toledo took advantage of a short field and Swanson would earn his third score of the day on a one-yard run. For the first time of the evening, Toledo would lead by two possessions, 24-14.
Northern Illinois came back down 14 against Eastern Michigan a week ago, so the team has shown resilience in late-game situations before. With 36 ticks remaining in the third quarter, the Huskies finally ended up on the right side of a big play, forcing Toledo to finally go three-and-out and subsequently blocking the punt and recovering it inside the 15-yard line.
However, Toledo's defense held firm and the Huskies were limited to a Christian Hagan 25-yard field goal after several failed rushing attempts. Northern Illinois cut it to one possession but its defense would have to continue to make crucial stops.
Woodside's arm moved Toledo into NIU territory again and reclaimed a comfortable 10-point lead off of Vest's second field goal of the night. Vest improved to 19-of-22 on field goal attempts this season.
On Northern Illinois' second last meaningful drive, a Childers pass to Spencer Tears vaulted the Huskies into Toledo territory. But on a monumental 4th-and-4, Childers tossed his second pick of the night and Toledo took over on the 33-yard line once again. NIU forced a three-and-out, but the next drive would end in a 47-yard miss by Hagan. The Huskies could not cut the deficit to one possession and Toledo left the Glass Bowl with the unblemished conference record.
The Huskies could not compete offensively with Woodside and his bevy of targets. Johnson tore up the NIU secondary, as did tight end Jordan Fisher, who drew an array of mismatches on the way to his first career 100-yard receiving game. The Northern Illinois defensive line didn't excessively pressure Woodside as it does to most quarterbacks. Toledo effectively halted Sutton Smith and the Huskies' powerful pass rush, allowing Woodside plenty of time to look down field.
The 27-17 result likely will propel Toledo (8-1) to the MAC Championship Game, barring unforeseen circumstances. The Rockets hold a two-game lead in the conference standings, as a result of holding the head-to-head tiebreaker with Carey and the Huskies. Toledo travels on the road to face Ohio (7-2), a team that bested the Rockets and broke their undefeated MAC record last season.
For Northern Illinois (6-3), it is time to bounce back. For the first time this season, NIU lost a game by multiple possessions and the offense could definitely step up, especially the passing game. The Huskies will recover next week in DeKalb against a Ball State team that has been throttled by all MAC competition its faced.