With just over two minutes to go, fans of the Eastern Michigan Eagles were starting to wonder about the “ifs”.
If Eastern Michigan won the game, they would have been in the catbird seat for being the Western Division representative in the MAC Championship. If EMU won the game, they also would have sealed their bowl eligibility as the first team to get to six wins in the conference. If they won the game, they’d have put together back-to-back conference wins.
The football gods seemed to have a different fate for them, as with 2:09 remaining, Toledo backup QB Tucker Gleason would find tight end Lenny Kuhl on a flat route for a touchdown to give the Rockets the first lead of the game, sitting at 27-24.
It would be the tally which ultimately stuck, as EMU was unable to engineer a drive to get into Rockets territory, eventually ending with Taylor Powell tossing an interception in the direction of Maxen Hook to seal EMU’s fate.
It was a result which might not have been expected at first, as EMU dominated much of the first half, causing several turnovers off fumbles and cashing them in.
It took until the 3:35 mark of the first quarter before either side broke the plane of the goal line, but it would Eastern Michigan doing so first, capping off a 61-yard drive with a three-yard run from Samson Evans to take an early 7-0 lead. Toledo would put three points on the board on the ensuing drive, relying on the leg of backup kicker Luke Pawlak to kick through the 27-yard field goal after starter Thomas Cluckey got hurt early on.
Eastern Michigan responded in kind, with Jesus Gomez tacked on a 34-yard field goal to extend the lead back to seven points. The Rockets quickly tied it up, taking only 1:14 of game clock to cap off a 75-yard drive with a 14-yard pitch-and-catch passing connection between Tucker Gleason and Mikel Barkley, putting the total at 10-all.
EMU possessed the ball at their own 25-yard line with 6:25 remaining, and would go on to have one of the strangest drives of the 2022 season.
The Eagles appeared to have been forced to a three-and-out appearance until defensive holding was called on third-and-nine, giving EMU a new series of downs... only to be forced into a punting situation once again from their own 28-yard line on fourth-and-18 after a ten-yard sack the previous play.
Mitchell Tomasek sent the ball up in the air, and Adam Beale was ill-positioned to catch it, muffing the ball. Corry Thomas Jr. recovered it for EMU, and once again, the Eagles were driving down the field. An early holding call doomed this EMU drive as well, and Tomasek had no choice but to punt again, pinning Toledo at their own two-yard line.
On the first play from scrimmage, Toledo RB Jacquez Stuart was stripped of the ball by Brandon Benson, with Jose Ramirez recovering, with Stuart drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Three plays later, Samson Evans scored his second touchdown of the day to put EMU up 17-10 at the halftime break.
There would be no such shenanigans to start the second half, as Toledo marched right down the field on a 75-yard drive, topped by a 35-yard pass from Gleason to Jerjuan Newton to tie the game at 17.
Eastern Michigan took the lead again after a 10-play, 65-yard drive was finished by a strong 11-yard Samson Evans touchdown run. A Toledo field goal by Luke Pawlak brought the Rockets within four of the Eagles with 13:37 to go in the game, setting up the final set of drives.
After three punts (with two marking the end of three-and-out drives), Toledo would break the game open with the Gleason-to-Kuhl score, putting the Rockets up by a field goal. The Eagles got the ball back soon after, but were unable to make anything of the four-play possession, turning it over on downs at their own 33-yard line.
The Rockets opted to be aggressive, trying to run down the clock and pick up the first down, but a strong defensive effort— and a very lucky offsetting personal foul call which resulted in Toledo’s leading rusher Jacquez Stuart getting ejected— gave EMU the ball once again after Toledo opted for the rare fake field goal punt.
Taylor Powell, who had gone back-and-forth with Austin Smith for reps all day, was tasked with leading the final drive, but ultimately couldn’t make it happen, tossing under duress to Dylan Drummond in double coverage to throw his only interception of the day and end the contest.
With this loss, Eastern Michigan falls to 2-3 in the MAC, but remain 5-4 overall. They still have a shot at bowl eligibility, but barring a miracle are likely not going to play for the MAC Championship.
With this win, Toledo finds itself at 4-1 in the MAC and in control of their destiny for the MAC Championship. They also became the first MAC team to clinch a postseason berth, which has proven to be a tall task with how much parity there’s been in the MAC tables.
Both teams will take the field on Tuesday, Nov. 8 at a time TBD, with EMU facing Akron and the Rockets taking on the Ball State Cardinals.