Toledo (7-6, 5-3 MAC) was the first of eight MAC squads set to take the stage in the 2021 Bowl Season, taking on Middle Tennessee State (7-6, 4-4 C-USA) in the Bahamas Bowl. It proved to be a frustrating day for Rockets fans, as the offense was never able to find any consistency in a 31-24 loss to the Blue Raiders.
Toledo’s first drive started off promising enough after Jacquez Stewart returned the opening kickoff to the Toledo 36. Bryant Koback promptly ran for 12 yards on the Rockets first offensive snap. Unfortunately, Jason Candle’s squad wasn’t able to string together any subsequent first downs, and the Rockets were forced to punt.
After a Bailey Flint punt pinned the Blue Raiders at their own 10-yard line, MTSU quickly picked up a first down courtesy of an 11-yard run from RB Jaylin Lane. The Rockets defense stiffened at that point and forced a punt, and it appeared at this point that both offenses needed to find their footing.
Toledo’s next possession started at their own 27-yard line, but once again the Rockets failed to get anything going. QB Dequan Finn completed only one of his three pass attempts on the drive, which went for negative yardage, and Toledo was forced to punt after a three and out.
The Rockets defense responded in kind, forcing a three-and-out of their own and quickly giving Toledo possession back. The first four drives of the game used only six minutes of game clock, and it appeared that we were in for a low-scoring, defensive affair.
Bryant Koback supplied the first explosive drive of the game on the Rockets first snap of the drive, going off the left side for 30 yards and bringing the Rockets into Blue Raiders territory for the first time. Dequan Finn then found WR Matt Landers along the left sideline for 21 yards to get the Rockets into the red zone, and it seemed like this unit was starting to find their rhythm. Unfortunately for Toledo, they were unable to capitalize once again on the field position, as Dequan Finn was tackled well short of the first down marker on third-and-11. Thomas Cluckey’s ensuing 35-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left, and the score remained knotted at zero.
The Rockets defense appeared to get off the field when Jamal Hines got pressure on MTSU QB Nick Vattiato on third-and-15, but Jamal Hines was called for roughing the passer on the play,thereby extending the Blue Raiders drive. Vattiato scrambled for 10 yards to pick up a first down on the next play, and MTSU had officially crossed mid-field for the first time of the contest. Vattiato then found WR Yusuf Ali on an out and up route for 23 yards, and just like that the Blue Raiders were in field goal range at the Toledo 24. MTSU rotated QB’s throughout the drive, and Mike DiLiello’s 14 yard run on third-and-seven gave the Blue Raiders a 1st and goal opportunity at the Toledo seven yard line. On third-and-goal, Nick Vattiato found Yusuf Ali over the middle for the first score of the day to conclude a 14-play, 72-yard drive, the Blue Raiders had themselves a 7-0 lead.
Toledo WR Demeer Blankumsee took a swing pass 15 yards for a first down on the first play of the ensuing drive, and Micah Kelly followed that up with an 11 yard run for another first down on the next play. After another catch by Blankumsee came up a yard short of the sticks, the Rockets opted to go for the first down on fourth-and-one from the MTSU 40 yard line. Dequan Finn showed his dual threat ability on the play, keeping the ball on the option play and taking it 40 yards for the score. Just like that, Toledo was back in the game.
After allowing the Blue Raiders a touchdown on their previous drive, the Rockets defense re-asserted itself on the ensuing MTSU possession. Even after an offsides penalty on third-and-eight, the Toledo defense sacked Vattiato to force a three-and-out. It seemed that the Rockets were starting to take control of the game, and the momentum would be all theirs if the offense could produce another score. A personal foul penalty on the ensuing punt didn’t help, and the Rockets offense took the field at their own 10-yard line.
It didn’t matter.
On the first play of the drive, Finn found Matt Landers on a post route and Landers made an incredible, one handed, juggling catch and took it 90 yards for the score. Just like that, Toledo found themselves up 14-7 with 11:11 to go in the first half.
Hello there @SportsCenter...— Hustle Belt (@HustleBelt) December 17, 2021
Ya like 89-yard juggling one-handed touchdowns caught in stride? Because Matt Landers just did that to put Toledo up 14-7. #SCTop10 #BahamasBowl pic.twitter.com/gPGwn9PsNX
The Blue Raiders wasted no time taking some of that momentum back. Vattiato completed two quick passes for 41 yards to start the drive, and MTSU was quickly inside the Toledo 35 yard line. Another completion from Vattiato to Jarrin Pierce brought the Blue Raiders into the Toledo red zone, and then a 17-yard completion to Izaiah Gathings brought MTSU to the Rockets one yard line. RB Frank Peasant found the end zone on the next play, and the Blue Raiders had pulled even. Vattiato was fantastic on the drive, completing four of five passes on the drive for 74 yards.
Needing an answer, the Rockets offense was unable to produce one, promptly going three and out.
MTSU regained possession at their own 20 yard line with 8:07 to go in the half, and the Rockets defense responded to the challenge and got a big stop. Nate Givhan sacked Vattiato on third-and-four to force a change of possession, however Devin Maddox muffed the ensuing punt and almost gave possession right back to the Blue Raiders. Fortunately for the Rockets, the ball rolled out of bounds before MTSU could recover.
Issues were once again an issue for the Rockets on the ensuing drive, and after a Toledo punt the Blue Raiders started their next drive from their own eight-yard line. After picking up one first down, MTSU turned to their bag of tricks, attempting a double reverse pass on first-and-10 from their own 33. The trickery backfired, as Toledo safety Sam Womack intercepted the Mike DiLiello pass and returned it to the Blue Raiders 16-yard line. Unfortunately, the Rockets offense was unable to fully take advantage of the good field possession and settled for a field goal. Thomas Cluckey redeemed his earlier miss and nailed the 32-yard attempt, giving the Rockets a 17-14 lead with just over a minute to go in the first half.
The Blue Raiders took over at their own 25-yard line, armed with three timeouts and 50 seconds to respond. Vattiato quickly moved MTSU down the field, completing three passes and forcing a pass interference penalty on another, and with 11 seconds left in the half the Blue Raiders found themselves on the Toledo 20 yard line. Zeke Rankin’s 37 yard field goal attempt sailed wide, and the Rockets entered the half with a 17-14 lead.
The Rockets ground game asserted itself incredibly well in the first half, amassing 145 yards on only 16 attempts. Toledo won the yardage battle 268-245 prior to the break, and the Rockets defense limited MTSU to 72 rushing yards on 19 carries. Blue Raiders QB Nick Vattiato kept MTSU in the game, completing 15-of-21 first half passes for 167 yards and a score. The Rockets did not help themselves, compiling nine penalties for 95 yards.
The Blue Raiders received the opening kickoff of the second half and started at their own 25-yard line after a touchback. MTSU quickly moved across midfield on the back of a 10 yard run and a 20 yard reception, both from Jaylin Lane. After crossing midfield, the Rockets defense tightened up, forcing a punt after two incompletions from Vattiato.
After a quick punt from Toledo, the Blue Raiders started their next drive at the Toledo 38 yard line. MTSU opted to go for it on fourth down from the Toledo 32, but the Rockets defense held, forcing an incompletion from Vattiato on fourth-and-four. Similar to the first half, both offenses seemed to struggle to find their footing coming out of the locker room.
Toledo moved the ball efficiently on their next drive, establishing the run with Koback and Dequan Finn. Koback led the way, with five carries on the drive to bring the Rockets within striking distance. Once again, Toledo sputtered as they approached the red zone. Facing fourth-and-three from the MTSU 25, Candle opted to attempt a field goal. Thomas Cluckey missed his second kick of the day, once again ending a promising Rockets drive.
MTSU took over with 5:30 to go in the third quarter. The Toledo defense quickly forced a third-and-10, but were unable to capitalize, allowing Vattiato to scramble for 12 yards and pick up the first down. Later in the drive, Jamal Hines was then flagged for targeting after leading with his helmet on a sack of Vattiato, earning a disqualification and giving the Blue Raiders another first down.
The Toledo defense once again forced MTSU into a third-and-long situation, but Vattiato found Jaylin Lane for 10 yards on third-and-13. Now in afourth-and-short scenario, MTSU went for it and were successful, extending the drive via a five-yard completion to Lane. Shortly thereafter, DiLiello ran 17 yards for a score, and the Blue Raiders were back in front 21-17.
Toledo took over at their own 25-yard line with 14:54 to go in the game. Koback once again provided a great start to the drive, picking up 23 yards off the right side on the first play, but three straight incompletions from Finn killed the positive momentum, and the Rockets were forced to punt.
After the Toledo defense held and forced a punt from the Blue Raiders on the ensuing possession, the Rockets offense took over at their own five-yard line but were forced to punt yet again after picking up just a lone first down.
The Blue Raiders delivered the knockout blow after the scuffed Bailey Flint punt, which granted MTSU the ball at their own 41-yard line. Vattiato found WR Jarrin Pierce running free in the Rockets secondary, and Pierce ran untouched into the end zone for a 59-yard score just two plays into the drive. MTSU had a 28-17 lead with just over six minutes remaining, and the Toledo offense had done nothing in the second half to inspire any confidence of a comeback.
If the outcome hadn’t already been decided, Dequan Finn’s interception on the ensuing drive all but sealed the deal, giving the Blue Raiders possession at the Toledo 27 with 5:40 to go in the game. MTSU capitalized in the form of a field goal, giving themselves a 31-17 lead off the back of Zeke Rankin’s 35-yard kick.
The Rockets attempted a comeback rally, going 83 yards in 15 plays on what would be their finall offensive series. Dequan Finn capped the drive with a 13-yard TD pass to Blankumslee, cutting the MTSU lead to 31-24 with just over a minute to go. That would prove to be our final tally, as the Rockets onside kick proved unsuccessful, and the Blue Raiders were able to run out the remainder of the clock.
The Rockets offense was never able to find any consistency in this game, especially in the second half. The passing game was never able to get going for the Rockets, with Dequan Finn finishing the day 18 of 39 for 212 yards, two TD’s, and an interception. 90 of his 212 yards came on one completion, the long TD strike to Matt Landers in the second quarter. Bryant Koback was a bright spot, turning in his sixth-straight 100 yard performance with 126 yards on 18 carries.
The Rockets defense also turned in an unimpressive performance, allowing MTSU QB Nick Vattiato to complete 23 of 35 passes for 270 yards and two scores. Toledo didn’t do themselves any favors, committing 12 penalties for 119 yards.
Toledo finishes the year 7-6 overall, 5-3 in the MAC, and continues to look for their first bowl win since 2015. Since their MAC title in 2017, Jason Candle’s squad has failed to win more than seven games in a season.
This was an inauspicious start for the MAC in bowl season, with the Rockets losing as a 10-point favorite. Luckily for the conference, seven more opportunities remain for MAC squads to show their strength.