It had been a pouring rain all Tuesday night at Howard Schellenberger Field at FAU Stadium, with both the Toledo Rockets (9-5, 5-3 Mid-American Conference) and the Liberty Flames (8-5, FBS independent) struggling to move the ball in the wet conditions.
On third-and-four from their own 41-yard line, the Rockets needed to run down clock and pick up a first down to hold on to a tenuous eight-point lead. Rockets quarterback Dequan Finn dropped back, but was immediately met by Aakil Washington, who chased him down for a 12-yard loss in the backfield to force a three-and-out with 3:53 remaining in the contest.
Two plays later, the Liberty Flames pulled out a double pass for a touchdown, with wide receiver CJ Daniels finding his fellow receiver Bentley Hanshaw wide open downfield for a 67-yard scamper down the sideline to bring the game to a two-point margin.
The Flames had no choice but to go for two in an effort to tie the game, as their placekicker Nick Brown had missed an extra point attempt earlier in the game due to a botched hold. The attempt failed, but likely would not have counted due to an offensive penalty.
It was a failure which would doom the Flames— and add a fire to the Rockets’ late-game efforts.
Toledo running back Jacques Stuart took over on the final drive of the game after the two-point miss, accumulating 53 yards and three first downs to preserve the final tally of 21-19.
It was a shaky start for both sides in the first half, with Liberty punting on the first possession of the game, and Toledo failing to convert on fourth-and-eight at the Liberty 39-yard line to kill a promising 11-play drive which had gone over five minutes.
Liberty struck first, taking advantage of an eight-yard sack on fourth-down to score on a five-play, 53-yard drive on a one-yard rushing touchdown from Shedro Louis to put the Flames up 7-0 with 3:50 remaining in the first quarter.
Toledo’s backup quarterback Tucker Gleason would lead the next Rockets scoring drive after a brief injury scare for Finn, guiding the UT offense to a 10-play, 68-yard drive over four minutes to set up a Thomas Cluckey field goal from 41 yards out.
The attempt was good, cutting the Liberty lead to 7-3 with 10:53 to go in the second quarter. The 7-3 tally would last all the way up to the halftime break, as Toledo and Liberty traded four straight punts to end the half.
The Rockets took over the pace of play in the second half, coming out of the gates with a domineering 13-play, 75-yard drive over six minutes before Dequan Finn would fake the give to the halfback and find Lenny Kuhl on the tight end jet sweep motion for a four-yard touchdown pass to put Toledo up 10-7.
Jamal Hines and Nate Givhan would gift the offense another chance at points just a few moments later, as Givhan strip-sacked Liberty quarterback Kaidon Salter and Hines recovered the ball to put Toledo at the Liberty eight-yard line.
Sensing the game potentially getting out of hand, the Flames defense stood up in the goal-to-go situation, with Toledo ultimately settling for another Thomas Cluckey field goal after losing four yards on the prior three plays.
Toledo would blink on special teams on the ensuing Liberty offensive drive, as punt returner Adam Beale mishandled the ball. Treon Sibley would pick up the fumble, placing Liberty at the UT eight-yard line.
Much like the Flames goal-line defense before them, the Rockets defense returned the favor, picking up a three-yard tackle-for-loss on second-down before covering the third-down pass attempt towards the endzone. The defense would get more help in the form of back-to-back Liberty penalties for holding and false start, which created a third-and-goal situation from the 21-yard line.
Two plays later, Nick Brown’s field goal attempt from 33 yards out would sail to the left of the uprights, preserving the Rockets lead at 13-7 with 2:35 to go in the third quarter.
The Rockets offense would use the rest of the third quarter and a good chunk of the fourth quarter to piece together their next drive, killing seven minutes of clock on a methodical 16-play, 80-yard drive to span their lead to 19-7 on the back of Dequan Finn’s one-yard rushing score, with Finn finding Jacques Stuart on a reception for the two-point conversion to go up 21-7.
Liberty would put up a scare late in the proceedings, with Kaidon Salter finding Treon Sibley for a 29-yard touchdown pass and the aforementioned double-pass touchdown on back-to -back possessions, but they couldn’t bridge the gap, failing on the all-important two-point attempt.
The Rockets were dominant on the offensive side of the ball, possessing for over 40 minutes of the game while converting 10-of-17 third-down attempts along the way. Dequan Finn finished 16-of-24 on a day which proved unfavorable for passing, amassing 133 yards and a touchdown on the day. Finn also had a rushing touchdown on the day. Tucker Gleason was 2-of-4 for 50 yards in relief of Finn while the latter was being evaluated for injury.
Jacquez Stuart’s Herculean effort on the final drive pushed his totals up to 111 yards on 23 carries to lead all rushers, while Jerjuan Newton (five catches, 42 yards) led the Rockets in receptions and Jamal Turner (three catches, 53 yards) led in yards.
Defensively, safety Maxen Hook led the Toledo tackling effort with eight total stops, while Jamal Hines led the team with a tackle-for-loss and a fumble recovery. Nate Givhan had a strip sack and Quinyon Mitchell showed off his All-American prowess with three pass break-ups.
Liberty was much less efficient on offense, going just 2-of-8 on third-down, with quarterback Kaidon Salters going most of the first quarter and the entire second quarter without completing a pass at one juncture.
Salters wound up finishing 12-of-20 for 84 yards and a touchdown through the air, while also leading the team in rushing with 63 yards on 10 carries. Shedro Lewis had 37 yards and a touchdown on eight carries. Bentley Hanshaw, the recipient of the double-pass touchdown, finished as leading receiver (73 yards) on two catches. Treon Sibley had the other receiving score, with 42 yards on three catches. Demario Davis led the team with six catches, but only had 16 yards.
The Flames had a field day against Toledo’s offensive front in a valiant effort, picking up 12 tackles-for-loss and four sacks as a unit. Mike Smith Jr. led all tacklers with 16 total, including a half-sack and two tackles-for-loss. Durrell Johnson (nine tackles) picked up a sack and five stops behind the line, while Aakil Washington had 1.5 sacks to pace Liberty.
The victory on Tuesday night was the program’s first in six years, with the 2015 edition of the Boca Raton Bowl the last time the Rockets lifted a postseason trophy. The game was Jason Candle’s first as Toledo’s head coach, replacing Matt Campbell after his departure for Iowa State.
The Rockets also finish 9-5 on the year, holding both the MAC crown and a postseason trophy, ensuring their best finish since the 11-3 MAC title campaign in 2017.