The two weeks before December 3, 2022 were trying for the Toledo Rockets (8-5, 6-3 MAC).
The Rockets clinched their spot in Detroit three weeks before the end of the season on tiebreakers, and hoped to maintain the momentum over the last few games.
Instead, they took a bad loss to rival Bowling Green, had to earn a victory against an upstart EMU team with a backup QB and dealt with injuries to both their quarterbacks which brought their health into doubt coming in.
Despite the adversity in the lead-up to the MAC title game, Toledo was able to finish the job on Saturday afternoon, taking home a 17-7 victory at Ford Field over the Ohio Bobcats (9-4, 7-2 MAC) to earn the program’s second championship trophy in five years.
It was a shaky start to the game, with Dequan Finn, fresh off rehabbing an ankle injury, having to scramble for yards early due to Ohio pressure before finding DeMeer Blankumsee for a 17-yard reception on second-and-eight from their own 43-yard line. The play proved to be controversial, as it was called downed by contact on the field and reviewed.
Replay showed Blankumsee had never touched the ground, with Ohio defensive back Tariq Drake stripping him of the ball and linebacker Bryce Houston chasing for a potential recovery, but the play stood due to lack of a clear recovery, giving Toledo the ball first-and-10 at the Ohio 40-yard line.
Two plays later, Toledo’s Jacquez Stuart would put the Rockets on the scoreboard first, with a slice-and-dice run through the Bobcats defense to score from 29 yards out at the 11:38 mark of the first quarter.
Offense would be a premium from there, with both teams punting twice to end ineffective possessions, keeping the score at 7-0 Toledo through the end of the first quarter.
It would be Ohio who broke the chains with 6:47 to go in the second quarter, throwing down a tone-setting 14-play, 84-yard drive over 7:14 of game clock which culminated in a Sieh Bangura one-yard rushing touchdown to tie the game at 7-7.
The Bobcats pinned their ears back on the next Toledo possession, forcing a three-and-out to gift the offense the ball back in favorable territory at their own 35-yard line.
CJ Harris, the backup QB with Kurtis Rourke out due to an ACL injury, had been efficient for most of the first half, going 5-of-6 in the second quarter, but made a major mistake on first-and-10 from the Toledo 47, lazily tossing a ball into double coverage, where a waiting Nate Bauer intercepted it.
The Rockets would exchange the interception for a late field goal with 16 seconds left in the second quarter, with Thomas Cluckey hitting it true from 44 yards out after a 14-play, 55-yard drive to put Toledo up 10-7 at the halftime break.
It was an effective reset for a game which had felt like it was starting to turn.
The third quarter, much like the first quarter, was a defensive effort, with Ohio punting three times, including after two consecutive three-and-outs, while Toledo punted on one possession and was unable to convert on a fourth-down attempt inside the Ohio redzone on the other.
The third Ohio punt of the frame was key to the direction of the rest of the game.
With 2:53 left in the third quarter, Ohio punted the ball from the Toledo 41-yard line, with Jack Wilson pinning the Rockets down with a fair catch at their own 10-yard line. Ohio would not see the ball again for over seven minutes, as the Rockets got physical and wore down the Bobcats defense with a 16-play, 90-yard drive before Dequan Finn found DeMeer Blankumsee on a wild schoolyard play for a 16-yard touchdown connection to put UT up 17-7 with 10:36 remaining.
Ohio would get the ball back after the kickoff at their own 40-yard line, but couldn’t make anything of it, as Nathanial Vakos missed a 55-yard field goal attempt which would have brought the margin to within a touchdown.
The Bobbies wouldn’t get that close again, with Toledo stopping their remaining two possessions with fourth-down pass break-ups by Quinyon Mitchell and Zachary Ford, respectively, to secure the MAC title.
Detroit native Dequan Finn finished the game 16-of-25 for 154 yards and a touchdown through the air and an additional 86 yards on 18 carries to pace the offense. Jacquez Stuart (nine carries, 93 yards, one touchdown) was the big play back who turned out to be a major difference, with runs of 11, 29 and 48 yards setting up a lot of opportunities for the Rockets. Micah Kelly (17 rushes, 53 yards) was also a contributor on the ground.
Jerjuan Newton led the receiving attack with 77 yards on six catches, while DeMeer Blankumsee (four catches, 33 yards) hauled in the lone touchdown.
Dallas Gant led the Toledo defensive charge with 10 tackles from the safety spot, while Desjuan Johnson and Nate Givhan each had a tackle-for-loss and Nate Bauer hauled in an interception. Givhan also had the team’s lone sack, with Quinyon Mitchell breaking up three passes.
It was an admirable effort for Ohio, who came into the game without superstar signalcaller Kurtis Rourke. They also wound up losing several key defensive starters and an offensive lineman due to injury during this contest.
CJ Harris, of nearby West Bloomfield, Michigan, finished 17-of-31 for 161 yards and an interception, with 12 yards gained on the ground. Harris spread the ball around, but it was to little effect, as no receiver finished with more than 39 yards (Will Kacmarek) or four receptions (Sieh Bangura.)
Bangura shouldered the load of the offense, with 56 yards on 20 carries, scoring once, while also getting four catches to lead the team, gaining 13 yards.
Zach Sanders led Ohio and tied the game lead with 10 tackles on the day, having to step up at primary corner after Torrie Cox Jr.’s injury in the first half. Six different Bobcats combined for seven tackles-for-loss, with Bryce Houston getting two to lead the team, while five different Bobcats notched one pass break-up each. Kai Caesar had the team’s lone sack for a turnover-on-downs.
With the victory, Toledo head coach Jason Candle becomes just the fifth MAC coach in the conference title game era to win multiple times, joining Rod Carey, Dave Doeren, Butch Jones, Tom Amstutz and Bob Pruett.
Candle and the Rockets last won the MAC in 2017, his first full year as UT’s head coach.
Ohio, meanwhile, will be left to wonder why, as their league-long title-less streak rolls on. The Bobcats still haven’t won in the modern era despite five appearances, and haven’t won in any era dating back to 1968.
Both teams now await placement in bowl games on Sunday afternoon.