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The anatomy of a heartbreak: Toledo falls 32-29 to Notre Dame in the final minutes

Toledo scored a go-ahead TD with 1:35 left, and 26 seconds later, all hope was lost.

NCAA Football: Toledo at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

You could taste the victory, and then, it all went sour. A monumental upset opportunity turned into deflating heartbreak in record time. Everything was shaping up for Saturday to be a monumental day in Toledo history, but that moment was snatched away in an instant and the Rockets exited the historic Notre Dame Stadium thinking, what could have been?

Toledo had Notre Dame on the ropes in South Bend, leading the No. 10 Fighting Irish 29-24 with less than 100 ticks remaining on the clock. On pace for the program’s first top 10 victory since 2003, Murphy’s Law was enacted. And the worst possible thing happened to the upset-minded Rockets.

Notre Dame flew down the field on a 3-play, 75-yard drive which spanned 26 seconds. Jack Coan completed three passes for 58 yards on the go-ahead drive, connecting with tight end Michael Mayer in the end zone with 1:09 remaining. A pair of penalties by the Toledo secondary also contributed to the drive and spotted Notre Dame an extra 17 yards in Rocket territory. That disastrous sequence for Toledo permitted the Fighting Irish to escape with a 32-29 victory.

The drive was reminiscent of the opening possession when Notre Dame rapidly maneuvered down the field to the tune of a 6-play, 75-yard drive that lasted just over two minutes. Mayer was also the recipient of that touchdown reception, and he torched the Toledo defense with seven receptions and 81 yards.

The Rockets’ defense rebounded from their early miscues and even managed a touchdown of their own before halftime. Toledo inched closer to the Irish with its third field goal of the afternoon, but cornerback Chris McDonald was responsible for the momentum swing which would finally lift the Rockets in front. He jumped Mayer’s route and walked into the end zone for a 27-yard pick six with 46 seconds remaining in the second quarter. At halftime, Toledo held a 16-14 advantage and a nervous aura shrouded South Bend.

Notre Dame appeared to regain control upon scoring 10 unanswered points in the early fourth quarter, within a 90-second span. But Toledo responded with a dose of star running back Bryant Koback. Koback shined with a 122-yard performance but no run was more important than his 8-yard scamper in the final eight minutes — Toledo’s first offensive touchdown of the afternoon.

Failing to convert the 2-point attempt hampered Toledo’s chances but a fortunate turnover bounce turned the tide of the game. Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams fumbled in Rocket territory and Toledo was able to gain control. With the offense returning to the field, quarterback Carter Bradley methodically guided his team down the field on the potential game-winning with a series of short completions. And on a critical 3rd and 1 from the Notre Dame 26, an almost-iconic moment for the program was concocted.

Toledo inserted its mobile quarterback Dequan Finn for the crucial short yardage situation. Finn faked the inside zone handoff to Koback, causing the Notre Dame defense to bite on the halfback. The entire left side of the field was for the taking and Finn sprinted 26 yards to the corner of the end zone to secure a 29-24 lead.

In hindsight, it’s easy to say Finn should have given himself up at the 1-yard line. Notre Dame only had one timeout remaining when the QB scrambled to the end zone with 1:35 remaining. Had Toledo strategized differently, kicker Thomas Cluckey (8/8 on field goals, 22/23 on extra points as a Rocket) could have delivered a game-winning field goal attempt with under 10 seconds remaining.

But the speed at which Notre Dame scored its final touchdown was absurd. The colossal defensive breakdown in Toledo’s secondary could not have been foreseen. Save for the first and final possessions of the game, the Rocket defensive backs asserted their dominance throughout the afternoon. The Irish only required 26 seconds of clock to score the go-ahead touchdown, ultimately destroying the landmark upset Toledo had in the works.

The Rockets fall to 1-1, but sticking with Notre Dame for 60 minutes proves the team has plenty to look forward to for the remainder of the season. Toledo resumes its non-conference slate next week to face a struggling Colorado State squad, hoping to make amends for the disheartening defeat.