Bowling Green’s entire coaching staff and roster were chasing something the Falcons hadn’t attained in years. Two coaching staffs and nearly two whole senior classes ago, Bowling Green held status as the MAC champion and participated in a bowl game. But since that 2015 season, the Falcons never saw a season extend past late November.
Sitting at 5-5 heading into Tuesday night, Bowling Green badly coveted that sixth win. But this time, there was extra motivation. The Falcons’ bitter rival Toledo stood on the other sideline, having won 11 of the last 12 in the recently-lopsided series.
Bowling Green watched a 21-0 lead slowly disintegrate in the Battle of I-75 rivalry, as Toledo converted a crucial 4th and 7 with in the final minute and scored on the ensuing play. With 51 seconds and two timeouts at their disposal, the Falcons didn’t panic. They overcame an early sack and converted a 3rd and 15 to pierce into enemy territory. Then on a 3rd and 10 from the Toledo 42-yard line, a MACtion miracle transpired.
Quarterback Matt McDonald escaped oncoming pass rusher Jamal Hines, but encountered another rusher as he attempted to move outside the pocket. Knowing his time was limited, he fired a dart to running back Ta’ron Keith, who began to dart upfield. The running back didn’t encounter much resistance until he was equidistantly enveloped by four Toledo defenders between the 10 and 15 yard lines. Keith lowered his shoulder, left all four in the dust, and reached paydirt. When Keith initiated his celebration, only nine ticks remained on the game clock. The Falcons converted the 2-point try for extra insurance, but it wasn’t even necessary as Toledo struck nowhere near opposing territory in those final nine seconds.
As ESPNU play-by-play announcer Connor Onion eloquently described it on the broadcast, “This is MACtion!”
The clutch play by McDonald and Keith handed Bowling Green a 42-35 victory over Toledo and the complementary Battle of I-75 Trophy. Now at 6-5 on the season, the Falcons are bound to participate in their first bowl game since 2015.
Although crunch-time heroics were required by the offense to ensure a victory, Bowling Green had the upper-hand for nearly the entire contest. Due to a commanding defensive start, the Falcons were able to win the field position battle in the first quarter and the offense capitalized as a result.
To spark the scoring effort for the night, McDonald heaved a deep ball to wide receiver Odieu Hiliare. Hiliare navigated through double coverage to complete the 25-yard connection in the end zone. That launched a career-night for the first year Falcon wideout. Entering Tuesday, no Bowling Green receiver accumulated more than 105 yards in a game this year. But against Toledo, Hiliare exploded for 243 yards and two touchdowns on seven receptions.
McDonald enjoyed his first 300-yard performance of the year and nearly hit the 400 threshold with a career-best 392 yards. The quarterback extended Bowling Green’s first quarter lead to double-digits on a goal line pass to tight end Andrew Bench. Then, to open the margin to three scores, Bowling Green’s special teams chimed in. The Falcons blocked their third punt of the year, and free safety Patrick Day scooped up the loose ball to claim a 21-0 lead in the Glass Bowl.
But Toledo is no stranger to overcoming 21-0 deficits. In fact, the Rockets completed this exact comeback on Oct. 15 in the same venue when Kent State jumped out to a three-touchdown lead. This time, the quarterback was different, as Tucker Gleason got the call in place of injured starter Dequan Finn.
A Karl Brooks-led Bowling Green front dominated in the early going and racked up 14 tackles for loss and four sacks on the night — led by Brooks’ 1.5 sacks and 3.5 TFLs. But eventually, Gleason eventually figured out how to counter this pressure and led Toledo’s offense to five touchdowns in the final three quarters.
Gleason began to utilize his scrambling ability, which opened up Toledo’s offense in a way previously unseen Tuesday night. The quarterback posted 106 yards on the ground, despite a handful of sacks counteracting that rushing total. His first touchdown of the night was a 5-yard scramble set up by an interception by Toledo defensive tackle Desjuan Johnson. Then, on a risky fourth down attempt before halftime, Gleason connected with running back Micah Kelly on a rollout shovel pass play. Kelly charged past an attempted tackler to rewrite Toledo’s deficit to 21-14 at halftime.
Bowling Green’s defense reverted to its first quarter dominance and held sturdy in the third quarter. Toledo was shut out in the period, and one contributing factor was an interception in Bowling Green territory. Falcons cornerback Deshawn Jones Jr. picked off Gleason to stall a drive, and his team capitalized with the first of two Mason Lawler field goals in the frame.
Down 27-14, Toledo utilized a 12-play, 69-yard drive to commence the fourth quarter. On this series critical to the Rockets’ comeback effort, they converted on two fourth downs. A 34-yard connection between Gleason and wide receiver Thomas Zsiros on a 4th and 4 form midfield provided Toledo the opportunity to crawl within six. And that’s exactly what unfolded when Gleason found tight end Jamal Turner in the end zone with 10 minutes remaining.
Bowling Green’s response was rather immediate, thanks to the playmaking of Tuesday night’s breakout star Hiliare. He averaged north of 30 yards per catch and collected insane amounts of yardage after his receptions. That was the case when he snagged a one-hander on third down and raced down the right sideline for a 59-yard score. Hiliare’s home run play extended Bowling Green’s advantage to 34-21 with 9:20 remaining.
Although Toledo captured its first lead of the night in the final minute thanks to a pair of late touchdowns, Bowling Green ultimately emerged victorious on Keith’s shocking catch-and-run. In terms of MAC Championship Game stakes, nothing changes for Toledo, which clinched its first MAC West title since 2017 last week. The Rockets remain Detroit-bound the first week of December, and Bowling Green is still eligible to serve as Toledo’s opponent.
Bowling Green must defeat Ohio on the road in next Tuesday night’s regular season finale. In addition, the Falcons must rely on either Akron or Kent State to knock off Buffalo — which would win a three-team tiebreaker involving Buffalo, Bowling Green, and Ohio should all three MAC East teams finish 6-2 in conference play.
But for now, the Falcons celebrate as the victor of the most riveting MAC game of 2022. This is MACtion, indeed.