The Toledo Rockets (4-2. 2-0 MAC West) took no prisoners in a 52-32 win over the Northern Illinois Huskies (1-5, 0-2 MAC West) in a contest which was not nearly as close as the final tally might indicate.
The best defense in the MAC completely contained the Huskies and cemented itself as the most significant reason the Rockets will be favored to win the MAC for the rest of the season.
Toledo cornerback Quinyon Mitchell had the game of his life with three first-half interceptions, returning two of them for touchdowns. He would tie the program record for interceptions in a single game on the opening drive of the second half, for his fourth nab of the contest. The Huskies looked like they were going to hang for in the game for the first quarter, but Toledo didn’t punt until it was 28-7.
Toledo linebacker Dallas Gant forced the Huskies into passing situations all day with nine total tackles, including 2.5 for a loss, showing off excellent tackle discipline all afternoon. Once the Rockets got their hands on NIU ball carriers, the play was over.
Quarterback Dequan Finn, running back Jacquez Stuart and receiver Jerjuan Newton delivered for the Rocket offense. That group was responsible for all three first-half touchdowns and that, plus some defensive touchdowns, was enough for the Rockets to get the win.
The Rockets started the game with an impressive and aggressive touchdown drive. Toledo converted two third downs and a fourth down to get the ball in for the score. Finn connected with Newton on fourth-and-two from the four-yard line on a rollout pass to the right side.
It was unclear before the game whether quarterback Rocky Lombardi would be healthy and ready for the Huskies, but Ethan Hampton got his third start of the season. On the second play and Hampton’s first pass, Mitchell jumped the route for his first interception and he could’ve walked it in for the touchdown.
The Huskies responded and looked like they would be able to hang in this game. It was tough sledding but their ten-play drive ended in a touchdown when Justin Lynch scored on a 15-yard run. The score was 14-7 and that was the best it would be for the Huskies.
The Rockets took the ball 73 yards in four plays to stretch the lead to 21-7. Stuart got halfway home with a 35-yard run and the Rockets scored on another Finn-to-Newton connection. This time for 11 yards. NIU did not have an answer for Newton and he was wide open for the score.
After a five-play drive that resulted in a punt for the Huskies, they shot themselves in the foot with a roughing the passer penalty. On a fourth-and-11, the Rockets threw the ball short and incomplete but got the first down via the penalty. Stuart broke an 18-yard run down to the one-yard line and scored on the next play.
A bad option pitch was recovered by the Huskies to retain possession, but the yardage lost killed the drive. NIU punted from midfield. Toledo returned the ball after penalties made a 4th and 1 in Huskie territory a fourth-and-six, then a fourth-and-11.
Mitchell ended the Huskies' next three drives. A personal foul took a big play off the board and created a 2nd and 14. An incomplete pass later it was third-and-14 and an obvious passing down. Mitchell jumped another route and took it to the house.
Northern Illinois was doing their best to stay in the game and drove the ball 74-yards to the Toledo four-yard line. Quarterback Ethan Hampton was making every pass all the way down the field, but left a jump ball short of his receiver and it fell into the hands of Mitchell.
NIU got the ball after halftime and threw another interception to Mitchell on a 3rd and 11 play. This time there was no return, but it got Mitchell into the record books. The fourth interception tied him for the most in a single game by a Rocket. They didn’t challenge him with a throw for the rest of the game.
Toledo’s defense forced two three-and-outs while the offense punted, kicked a field goal and scored another touchdown to make the score 45-7 after three quarters.
In typical NIU and #MACtion fashion, it got momentarily interesting in the fourth quarter. The Huskies had the ball at the five-yard line as the fourth quarter started and scored on run by running back Antario Brown and converted the two-point conversion.
Then the Huskies recovered an onside kick.
After bouncing off a Rocket on the front line of the kick return team, the Huskies jumped on it great field position. The drive stalled out after 22 yards and they kicked a field goal.
Then on the kickoff, they recovered another onside kick.
This time it was right up the middle and recovered by a player right next to the kicker who was also charging forward. This drive went the distance and closed the gap to 21 points. At this point, there were only six minutes left in the game and it was too little, too late.
The Rockets recovered the next onside kick, scored a touchdown and put the game to bed. A late touchdown by NIU provided the 52-2 final score in a wild game.
Despite the game being out of reach early, it wasn’t all bad for the Huskies. Harrison Waylee got 23 touches for 123 total yards, and Ethan Hampton was efficient with the ball when he wasn’t throwing interceptions. Antario Brown was a tough runner and collected 84 yards and a touchdown.
The defensive touchdowns made turned this game upside down. Without them, the game is within one possession, and we all know that NIU loves those.
The Huskies head home to play an Eastern Michigan team that took care of business on the road in Kalamazoo. They got handled by a good Buffalo team, then shut down the Broncos. Both teams will need to win that game.
The Rockets host Kent State and the Golden Flashes might have their backs against the wall already. Buffalo is taking a commanding lead in the East and a loss to Miami puts another team between them and Detroit. They’ll play the Rockets knowing another loss makes the path to the MAC Championship Game complicated.