It was a revenge game. The Toledo Rockets narrowly fell to the Appalachian State Mountaineers in the 2016 Camellia Bowl. In the same state, with an improved team, the Rockets looked ready to make a final statement in a MAC championship season. But disaster struck. And it struck again and again.
Appalachian State blanked Toledo 34-0 in the Dollar General Bowl in Mobile. The Mountaineers, who were recognized as Sun Belt co-champions, entered the game as touchdown underdogs and silenced any doubt by dismantling a talented Toledo team. The defense played immaculately and the running game was virtually unstoppable for the majority of the contest.
"When we're running the football at a really good rate and we're playing solid defense, we're really hard to beat," Appalachian State head coach Scott Satterfield said. "Our defense is not giving up many big plays or points, and the next thing you know, you're in the second half and the game's not even close."
Appalachian State utilized a run-heavy offense (ran on 24 of first 28 plays) led by junior running back and offensive MVP Jalin Moore. Moore crossed the 1,000-yard mark on the season by charging for 125 yards and contributing 75% of the Mountaineers' touchdowns in the shutout. Defensively, the Mountaineers were relentless. Toledo only gained 146 yards compared to Appalachian State's 458 and finished over 300 yards below the Sun Belt foe in the rushing department.
"They did a good job of making us go laterally," Toledo head coach Jason Candle said. "We never really established a vertical running game, which really disrupted our rhythm a little bit and threw our balance off. Once the score got one-sided, we got a little one-sided in our play-calling, and that's really not who we are."
One of the key separation factors in Mobile was field position. Toledo's average starting spot was its own 22, while Appalachian State's was on its own 40. The Rockets were forced to climb out of deep holes throughout, and the team was never able to field a long return or create a turnover to swing the field position around.
"For us offensively, it's about balance, it's about taking care of the ball," Candle said. "If you asked me two days ago what are going to be our keys to the game: control the line of scrimmage, take care of it, find a way to create some turnovers. We didn't create any turnovers, we turned it over a bunch ourselves, and we didn't control the line of scrimmage."
It was a slow start for both participants. The teams traded punts throughout the first several minutes of the game and the Mountaineers didn't gain momentum until a crucial Logan Woodside interception on Toledo's second drive. Woodside tossed the ball into double coverage in the center of the field, and defensive MVP and inside linebacker Anthony Flory returned the pick for 19 yards to set up a perfect scoring opportunity.
"Turnovers are momentum plays, and in games where teams are evenly matched, momentum is a big deal and you want to have it on your side," Candle said. "They forced a couple of those and put us in some tough situations and we had a difficult time protecting the quarterback. A couple of those were trying to force balls late and trying to make a play, but you can't fault a kid for that — he's trying to help his team win a game."
Moore was responsible for all 36 yards Appalachian State gained on the ensuing possession, and the Mountaineers struck first to lead 7-0. A drive later, Appalachian State ran several speed options with quarterback Taylor Lamb, and the senior quarterback waited until the second quarter to throw his first completion — a beauty to Ike Lewis. Lewis' 26-yard catch set up a Moore 7-yard touchdown run, good for his second of a career-high three scores on the day.
"It meant everything to send out these guys with a 'W' like this," Moore said. "I knew what was at stake in this game and I just tried to play a perfect game for myself and for my boys."
Toledo took home several small victories to finish the half by recording red zone stops and forcing Appalachian State to kick two field goals. This resulted in the Rockets trailing 20-0 at halftime after their first scoreless half of 2017, as Appalachian State forced Toledo to look like a completely different offense than the one that registered 11 victories.
"I think we did a lot of different things coverage wise," Satterfield said. "Their quarterback's really good, can throw the football, and he's got some outstanding receivers. We mix it up into different coverages and try to give him some different looks. And we were able to force them into turnovers."
After watching Toledo pile points on opponents all season long, it seemed destined the Rockets would come back. And running back Terry Swanson began the third quarter with a 24-yard burst, as the Rockets entered Appalachian State territory for the second and final time on the evening. In fact, Toledo never crossed the Mountaineers' 30. This particular possession ended in a Woodside interception down the left sideline, as Appalachian State's deep zone coverage served as a perfect counter.
The Mountaineers capitalized on the 35-yard interception return by free safety Desmond Franklin, and Appalachian State drove right down the field at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. Moore would finish the series with his third score of the night, stiff-arming Toledo en route to a 31-yard scamper.
"They had a pretty good running scheme, which forced everyone up front to do their jobs every single play," outside linebacker Ja'Wuan Woodley said. "There were gaps that were exposed that they could get through that allowed them to get those big plays."
Toledo's offense never gained momentum after this score, finishing every remaining drive before its own 40-yard line. Woodside took four sacks, including several drive-killing hits on third downs. Conversely, the Rockets' defense never wrapped up Lamb in the backfield once. One offensive line performed extremely well in terms of protecting the quarterback and anchoring the rushing game, while the other did exactly the opposite.
Appalachian State's final touchdown would occur on the first play of the fourth quarter, as wide receiver Malik Williams ran the ball in three yards on a reverse. The scoring finished with 14:54 remaining on the clock, and the scary part for Toledo was it could have been worse.
Appalachian State scored touchdowns on just three of seven red zone appearances. Kicker Chandler Staton successfully kicked short field goals on two, missed a field goal on one, and the team turned it over on downs on another.
But despite the Mountaineers' "lack" of red zone success, Toledo's offense could never respond and complete a drive on its own. Woodside finished the evening throwing a career-high third interception, as Appalachian State's cornerback Clifton Duck made an impressive juggling grab on the sideline. It was a bitter end to a college career for Toledo's first-ranked passing yards leader in program history.
"It was pretty tough," Woodside said. "I feel like I let my team down a little bit. Give App State a lot of credit. They forced a couple balls down field, uncharacteristic of myself, but overall, it can't take away what we did this season."
The offensive line never provided the protection Woodside needed or paths for the running backs, but there were more lingering issues. Wide receivers, including First Team All-MAC receiver Diontae Johnson (two catches, 21 yards) were blanketed by an unforgiving Appalachian State secondary. In all, the Mountaineer defense spoiled the seniors' final game by forcing four turnovers and claiming a second-straight bowl victory over Toledo.
But on the other sideline, Lamb's storied college career, which featured three bowl wins and two Sun Belt titles, concluded in the most exciting way possible for the longtime starter. Lamb was a key part of the Mountaineers' evolution from an FCS team to a perennial Sun Belt power with a 3-0 all-time bowl record.
"When you come into a program, you want to leave it better than you came into it," Lamb said. "You didn't know what was ahead, but you knew you could succeed, especially with a class that we had. We came in, worked every day, completed with three bowl games and a couple of conference championships."
Toledo finishes the season 11-3 after the program claimed its first MAC championship since 2005. A great season and a potential AP Poll appearance were spoiled by the blowout loss, but Candle looks at Toledo's 2017 campaign as a success for the program.
"That 60 minutes is a tough pill to swallow," Candle said. "I couldn't be more proud of what they've accomplished. They took a knee at the 50-yard line in the Glass Bowl this summer and said they wanted to hang a number up on the face of the press box, and they did that."