On the surface, a 28-21 ballgame suggests a decent level of execution by the offenses. But in reality, Tuesday night at the Glass Bowl was an exhibition between two punters trading blows in a tie game, waiting on one offense to deliver a final punch.
With 1:18 remaining, Toledo finally stepped up to the occasion. Quarterback Dequan Finn connected with tight end Jamal Turner in the flat, and Turner beat Ball State to the corner of the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown. That crunch-time score lifted Toledo (7-3, 5-1 MAC) to a 28-21 victory over Ball State (5-5, 3-3 MAC).
While maintaining an undefeated record at the Glass Bowl, Toledo commandingly moves into the driver’s seat for its first MAC Championship Game appearance since 2017. If Northern Illinois defeats Western Michigan on Wednesday night, the Rockets will officially punch their ticket to Detroit for a chance at the conference title.
Before the celebration ensued in the Toledo locker room, this game featured plenty of offensive futility. Ball State and Toledo combined to punt 22 times, and there was a second half field position battle where the teams exchanged nine consecutive punts — and more than half of these punts wrapped up a three-and-out. Toledo punted 10 times for 336 yards, while Ball State produced more punting yards than offensive yards by a 478-281 margin.
The punting show was finally interrupted by Finn’s game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. Right before mailing the game-winning touchdown strike, Finn delivered a clutch 22-yard pass to Jerjuan Newton to overcome a 1st and 20 set up by a holding penalty. It was the first game back from injury for the quarterback, who missed the previous contest against Eastern Michigan. The rejuvenated Finn completed 21-of-38 attempts for 301 yards and three touchdowns in the win, registering his season-high in passing yards.
Ball State’s offense was certainly more one-dimensional than that of Toledo. The Cardinals were in control for the majority of the night, never trailing from the end of the first quarter until the final 78 seconds. Ball State’s early success was primarily due to the heroics of running back Carson Steele. For the second consecutive week, the true sophomore bested his career-high in the rushing department. The 6’1”, 215 power back broke a bevy of tackles en route to a 198-yard performance. His tackle-breaking ability was on full display on all three of his touchdowns.
By his third touchdown at the 12:32 mark in the third quarter — Ball State’s final score of the night — Steele amassed 171 rushing yards on 18 attempts. But Toledo’s defense made the necessary adjustments to limit the MAC’s leading rusher, stuffing the box for the remainder of the game and forcing Ball State to throw. Steele picked up just 27 yards on his final 10 carries, but Ball State’s passing attack was never established in the wake of the Rockets’ well-executed defensive strategy.
Quarterback John Paddock completed 13-of-35 passes for 94 yards in the defeat. His final completion was a 28-yard strike to tight end Brady Hunt to propel Ball State into Toledo territory in the final minute. That pass was the Cardinals’ only 20+ yard completion all night. However, they were unable to capitalize on that play, and Paddock threw an interception to Toledo strong safety Maxen Hook on a do-or-die 4th and 18 with the result on the line.
Ball State’s passing game didn’t receive an assistance from its typically stout offensive line. Entering Wednesday, the Cardinals only allowed eight sacks in nine games, but five were yielded to a talented Toledo pass rush Tuesday night. No Rocket brought down the quarterback multiple times, but rather, it was a balanced effort from a myriad of defenders. But when a play was need most during Ball State’s final drive, star edge rusher Jamal Hines delivered with a monumental sack to boost his career total to 20.5, setting the Cardinals in an improbable 4th and 18 situation.
Toledo’s pass rush and coverage were a shining example of mutualism. While the pass rush posted its numbers in the backfield, the defensive backs thrived in coverage. Ball State completed passes at a 37 percent clip, and deflections played a significant part in manufacturing this low number. Cornerback Quinyon Mitchell got his hands on three passes, while Hook broke up two passes prior to his game-sealing interception.
The Rockets’ defensive minded victory pushed their win total to seven, tying the program’s most prosperous season ever since their 2017 MAC title run. With one more victory, Toledo provides itself a shot at a conference title for the second time in the Jason Candle era. The Rockets run it back in the Glass Bowl for one more game next Tuesday, where their heated rivalry with Bowling Green takes place.
Ball State wasn’t able to clinch bowl eligibility Tuesday night despite never trailing in the second half until the final two minutes. The Cardinals need one more victory to secure a postseason bid for the third consecutive year. In order to lock up that accomplishment, they’ll challenge Ohio and Miami (OH) in the coming weeks in hopes of a more fortunate result.