Bowl season officially kicked off Friday at noon ET in international waters. And it kicked off in surprising fashion as a double-digit underdog prevailed to take home the trophy. Head coach Brent Stockstill and the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders utilized a 17-0 run in the fourth quarter to slip past Toledo, 31-24.
The credits rolled on the Rockets’ 2021 campaign as the program was unable to emerge victorious in Nassau for the second time in four seasons.
Victims of another bowl upset
Friday appeared to be a prime opportunity for Toledo to add valuable hardware to the program’s trophy collection. Bowl season is a staple for the Rockets, which have not suffered a losing season since 2009. However, the regular season success has not translated to postseason triumphs in recent years.
Despite being pegged as 10.5-point favorites, Toledo couldn’t surge past Middle Tennessee in the Bahamas Bowl. It marked the Rockets’ fourth consecutive postseason loss, and in all four games, upsets transpired. Three of those four contests featured betting lines which favored Toledo by six points or greater. After Friday’s result, Toledo remains in search of its first bowl win since the 2015 Boca Raton Bowl — head coach Jason Candle’s first game at the helm.
“Obviously disappointed with the outcome of the football game. Credit to Coach Stockstill and his team for getting a win today,” Candle said. “Bittersweet deal and tough thing for me to watch this senior class go out today because these guys have given a lot to us and poured their heart and soul into our football program, so we really wanted to get this ‘W’ today.”
What went wrong in Nassau
Toledo’s Bahamas Bowl loss stemmed from a multitude of factors, but the inability to register points in the second half until 68 seconds remained stood at the forefront of issues. Before the offensive funk, the Rockets offense enjoyed an energized second quarter which featured 17 points. Toledo led at the break after capitalizing on two home run plays in the frame — a 40-yard Dequan Finn QB keeper and a 90-yard fling from Finn to wide receiver Matt Landers, who tipped the ball to himself to defeat 1-on-1 coverage.
The Rockets out-gained Middle Tennessee in the yardage department and averaged a stellar 7.3 yards on the ground, but the promising offensive production didn’t necessarily translate to points. Toledo missed two field goals and punted seven times, including on five possessions which featured a first down.
“We gained a lot of yards on offense and didn’t score a lot of points,” Candle said. “The third quarter was a stalemate and a little bit of a lull. We didn’t make some of the tough plays in the second half offensively, and too many penalties and self-inflicted stuff on both sides of the football.”
One interesting contrast the Bahamas Bowl presented was a battle between a Middle Tennessee team which leads the FBS in turnovers collected and a Toledo team which leads the FBS in fewest giveaways. The teams were deadlocked in the turnover battle and points off turnovers, but a different alarming statistic raised eyebrows — one Toledo is all too familiar with.
The Rockets entered Nassau with more penalties than any other team in the nation, garnering 9.8 per game. Only UAB exceeded Toledo’s average penalty yardage of 88 per game. In a microcosm of the 2021 season, flags proved costly Friday afternoon and Toledo added 12 penalties for 116 yards to its unwanted collection.
No penalty proved more significant than a targeting foul in the fourth quarter. Holding onto a 17-14 lead, Toledo’s outside linebacker Jamal Hines flew in off the edge for a crucial sack. However, a targeting penalty resulting from helmet-to-helmet contact ended Hines’ season prematurely and breathed new life into a Middle Tennessee offense which otherwise would have faced 3rd and 18. The Blue Raiders cashed in on the possession to obtain a lead which would not be relinquished.
“It’s ironic that we were the number one team in the country in not turning the ball over but we were probably one of the more penalized teams in the country,” Candle said. “There are some discipline things that we have to tighten the screws on that we gotta make sure that we fix. Maybe some practice habits that we have to figure out, and then get really under the microscope and find out what’s up.”
Solemn senior sendoff
Every bowl game comes with a bittersweet reality. For all 84 teams participating in bowl season, a senior class is experiencing its final stand at the collegiate level. Due to recent alterations to redshirt rules and eligibility extensions attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, many seniors have long been entrenched in their respective programs.
This was the case with Toledo, which bid farewell to a horde of seniors including five 2021 All-MAC selections. When asked what was most difficult about the loss, Candle didn’t downplay the impact on the seniors.
“I gotta see Sam Womack, I gotta see Tycen Anderson, I gotta see David Hood — I gotta see all 13 seniors crying their eyes out and there’s nothing I can say that will make them feel any better,” Candle said. “We wanted to send them off with a win.”
Returning players on the roster echoed Candle’s sentiments. Junior halfback Bryant Koback continued his run of dominance with his sixth consecutive 100-yard rushing game. Despite another outstanding individual performance, Koback’s main focus in the postgame was the sight of the seniors.
“These seniors have been here five, six years — especially with the COVID year — so the brotherhood in the locker room was tight,” Koback said. “Watching them sit there and bawling knowing it’s their last game and we didn’t send them off with a win — that hurts, and you definitely feel it to the heart.”
While Toledo didn't accomplish its preseason goals of winning a MAC title or securing a bowl victory, there were still positive takeaways as the team managed its 11th winning season in 12 years. Candle is already eyeing those coveted postseason victories as the offseason approaches in Northern Ohio.
“To start the season, everyone wants to end up in Detroit and win a MAC championship. It’s disappointing we didn’t win a MAC championship. It’s disappointing we didn’t win a bowl game,” Candle said. “Like I told the team, you had 13 opportunities this year to play football. The other 352 days out of the year, these guys are great people, they’re great students, and they’re doing the things right off the field, and really representing our football program and their families in the right manner. We’ll continue to invest in that, continue to try to get better, and move on.”