2004 was a very important year for the Mid-American Conference.
Ford Field, newly built and opened in 2003 in the heart of Detroit, Michigan, had been named the new venue for the MAC’s Football Championship Game, which to that point had been played on-campus, with the team with the better league record hosting.
The Toledo Rockets and Miami RedHawks would be the two combatants in the first-ever neutral site MAC title game after both teams won their respective divisions, with the Rockets eventually taking the crown thanks in part to a 21-point third quarter performance fueled by two picks off the arm of Miami QB Josh Betts.
19 years later, both Toledo (11-2, 8-1 MAC) and Miami (11-2, 8-1 MAC) clinched their divisions early, securing their tickets to Detroit, which by now has become a well-established tradition in the college football world, standing as the NCAA’s longest neutral-site championship game.
Two days prior to the contest, the conference announced the move to scrap divisons in favor of a pod scheduling model, suddenly making their Saturday afternoon contest a memorial of sorts to the eccentricities of divisional play.
It’s fitting, then, the Rockets and RedHawks earned the opportunity to close this particular chapter in MAC history, meeting as divisional representatives at Ford Field once again— while also holding the two best records in the league.
One team the defending conference champion, the other a scrappy outfit looking to finally earn their keep. Just like 2004.
A nod to the past, with an eye towards the future.
Miami’s 23-14 win over Toledo on Saturday afternoon served as a nice little knot to the story of the divisional-era MAC title game, as the RedHawks were able to get revenge on the Rockets in their coronation moment, in a reversal of the situation from all those years back.
The RedHawks threw the first punch on special teams, with Keyon Mozee returning the opening kickoff for 37 yards to give the offense great starting field position. Aveon Smith’s 10-yard pass to Gage Larvadain on the first play from scrimmage, followed by Rashad Amos’ 25-yard burst would go on to set up a Graham Nicholson field goal to give Miami an early 3-0 lead at the 11:40 mark of the first quarter.
Toledo responded with a drive featuring three explosive plays in a row, with Dequan Finn finding Jerjuan Newton for a 10-yard pass on third-and-eight, then again on a 13-yard pass on the next play before Jacquez Stewart’s ensuing 13-yard run placed the ball at the Miami 37-yard line.
Two plays later, the RedHawks sent the house, with Finn forced to scramble to keep the play alive. Brian Ugwu would strip the ball on the sack attempt, and Kobe Hilton would recover the ball, ending the Rockets drive.
The two teams would exchange punts after that, with Miami eventually finding the scoreboard again with 46 seconds left in the half— thanks in part to a crown-of-the-helmet targeting call against Judge Culpepper on a third-and-12 play from the Toledo 15-yard line.
Miami would cash in two plays later when Rashad Amos crossed the goal line on a one-yard run to put the RedHawks up 10-0.
Another exchange of punts later on two three-and-outs, Toledo would string together a seven-play, 60-yard drive to try and set up a scoring drive, but a holding call on second-and-10 would prove to be important, as Luke Pawlak’s 39-yard field goal try was blocked by Austin Ertl to keep the score at 10-0 midway through the second quarter.
There wouldn’t be very much offensive fireworks until late in the first half, when Toledo’s Dequan Finn found Anthony Torres on a 16-yard connection on third-and-five after three-straight three-and-outs. That sparked a dormant Rockets offense, as Junior Vandeross III would gain 33 yards on a reception the play after and Peny Boone would rush for five yards to place the ball at the Miami 15-yard line.
That’s when things got weird.
Dequan Finn searched for Devin Maddox in the endzone on second-and-five, but Miami’s Michael Dowell was called for a defensive pass interference penalty in the endzone, placing the ball at the two-yard line.
A botched exchange between Finn and Peny Boone on the first play of the new set of downs forced a five-yard loss, but Toledo had seemingly recovered on the next play, as Finn found tight end Anthony Torees for a seven-yard touchdown. A late flag for illegal man downfield would nullify the score, however, forcing a replay of the down.
Two plays later, Finn would scramble out of the pocket for a six-yard gain to get to the three-yard line, but a holding call brought that back as well, putting the ball back at the Miami 13-yard line.
The Rockets would finally find paydirt on a 16-yard pass from Finn to Torres to put the score at 10-6, but an offsides penalty on Miami wiped away a botched extra-point operation, giving Toledo an opportunity to go for two. They’d convert on another Finn-to-Torres play, putting the score at 10-8 with just nine seconds remaining before the halftime break.
The third quarter would start off much in the same way the first quarter did, with Graham Nicholson converting a field goal after the defense forced a Toledo three-and-out, extending the RedHawks lead to 13-8.
Toledo would respond by putting together their best drive of the afternoon to that point, mounting a four-play, 75-yard drive to score on a three-yard rush by Dequan Finn set up by a 44-yard pass to Junior Vandeross II and a defensive pass interference call on Silas Walters in the endzone to take the 14-13 lead with 9:00 remaining in the third quarter.
Toledo had a chance to extend their lead twice on the point-after attempt, but an illegal shift on a two-point try and a missed extra point kept it at 14-13. This would ultimately prove to be a key exchange, as those points would come into play at game’s end.
Miami would take the ball 45 yards on a six-play drive after Toledo took the lead, setting up for a field goal by Graham Nicholson, who was a perfect 24-of-24 on the season. The kick wound up getting pushed left, giving Toledo theball back at their own 31-yard line.
The teams would exchange three-straight three-and-outs before Nicholson was given a chance at redemption from 40 yards out, forcing the gap to jump to 16-14 with 13:27 remaining.
From there, the teams exchanged hardly-fought defensive efforts, with neither side getting more than 24 yards or seven plays before punting the ball away.
Miami would get the ball back at their 28-yard line with 6:04 remaining after Silas Walters broke up a third-down pass attempt to force a 39-yard punt from Emilio Duran, and would grind away the clock over two plays, gaining seven yards on two Rashad Amos runs up the middle before Toledo called timeout.
Out of the break, Miami would line up on third-and-three at their own 35-yard line and put the ball in the hands of Aveon Smith. Smith took the snap, motioned to the right, then followed his blocks and cut to the middle of the field to gain a new set of downs— and then 40 more yards before being dragged down at the Toledo 15-yard line.
The play was exactly what Miami was hoping for, as they were able to go back to Rashad Amos once again over three consecutive plays before the South Carolina transfer broke free for a 10-yard touchdown to put Miami up two scores with 2:41 remaining.
The game wasn’t over, however, as the highest-scoring offense in the MAC would still have a chance to respond.
Toledo came out firing on their final drive of the game, with passes to Devin Maddox (eight yards) and Anthony Torres (27 yards) to move into Miami territory, but a personal foul on Vinny Sciury would put the Rockets in an unfavorable first-and-25 situation. The Rockets managed to get out of it thanks to a 13-yard connection between Finn and Vandeross to stop the clock, but the Miami defense bowed up to force a fourth-and-two decision at the Miami 20-yard line.
Luke Pawlak, who had a field goal blocked earlier in the contest, came back out for a 38-yard field goal. The result was identical; Austin Ertl once again collected the block to kill the attempt— but the ball was live, with Toledo’s Dalton Andrews managing to get under the ball for a first down play to keep the drive alive.
Penalties would rear their ugly head again, affecting the Toledo drive once again as Vinny Sciury was called for holding on a four-yard gain. Forced into first-and-20 from the Miami 28, the Rockets tried to pass out of it twice to no avail.
On third-and-20, with just over 30 seconds remaining, Dequan Finn took the snap, moved back in the pocket to avoid the incoming pressure, then fired off a pass in the direction of Devin Maddox on the far side of the endzone. Instead, the ball found the outstretched hand of Miami cornerback Yahsyn McKee, sealing the victory for the RedHawks.
Miami’s Aveon Smith, the Offensive Player of the Game, finished the afternoon 6-of-16 passing for 109 yards and 99 rushing yards on 21 carries, including his clutch 50-yarder. Rashad Amos was the team’s dynamo, especially late, with 15 carries for 74 yards and two rushing touchdowns. Luke Bolden’s lone 40-yard reception led all RedHawks, with Gage Larvadain (two catches, 18 yards) leading in catches.
Defensive Player of the Game Matt Salopek led the RedHawks with nine tackles and a tackle-for-loss, with Ty Wise (eight tackles, one pass break-up) right behind him. Brian Ugwu (seven tackles, TFL) registered a sack fumble on the afternoon as well, while Yahsyn McKee hauled in the game-sealing interception to go along with his PBU, one of five RedHawk defenders to log at least one broken pass.
As always, special teams were vital to the Miami gameplan. Graham Nicholson missed his first field goal of the year in this contest, but was still 3-of-4 with a long of 40 yards on the afternoon, winning Special Teams Player of the Game honors. Punter Alec Beveheimer, who began the year as a reserve player, finished with six punts for 281 yards (average 46.8 yards per punt), with two punts of 50+ yards and four punts inside the 20-yard line.
Miami’s defense put on a show, keeping the high-powered Toledo offense to just 4-of-15 on third-down, 18-of-36 in the air and under 100 yards rushing, with several special teams stops contributing to the effort as well. Miami’s defense also forced the only two turnovers of the game, with their first quarter fumble and fourth-quarter pick ultimately making a difference.
For Toledo, it was a bittersweet day after a season to remember.
Dequan Finn finished 18-of-36 for 273 yards, a touchdown and a pick in the air, and 45 yards and a score on the ground. Peny Boone, the MAC’s Offensive Player of the Year, was held to 41 yards on 11 carries. Junior Vandeross II led all receivers with six receptions for 106 yards, while Anthony Torres (three receptions, 56 yards) had the lone receiving TD and a two-point conversion.
Dallas Gant led all tacklers with 12 tackles on the day, including a TFL. The defense played most of their game without first-team all-MAC defensive lineman Judge Culpepper after he was ejected for a targeting call, but he still managed a half-sack on the day with D’Andre Ragin. Ragin led the team with two TFLs and had six tackles. Quinyon Mitchell led the team with two pass break-ups, with three other Rockets notching at least one.
Toledo’s special teams were not flattering on the whole, with both of Luke Pawlak’s field goal attempts blocked and a point-after attempt sailing straight to the left. Punter Emilio Duran was also under constant duress, with eight punts for 292 yards (averaging 36.5 yards). One punt was nearly blocked completely, as Duran had to deftly move upfield after a bad snap to try a rugby-style kick with a tackler closing in.
Toledo did manage to keep Miami to 4-of-14 on third-down plays, but untimely penalties on both sides of the ball did not aid the effort for the team from the Glass City.
For Miami, this is their 17th conference title as a member of the Mid-American Conference, and their second title under head coach Chuck Martin, who took over the job in 2014. Martin (2019, 2023) is now the seventh MAC coach to win multiple titles in his tenure. This title is also Miami’s second in a row as an underdog, with Miami tabbed a 6.5-point underdog prior to kickoff.
For Toledo, they fall to 2-1 in MAC title game appearances under head coach Jason Candle, and to 11-2 overall on the season. Their unlikely run towards the New Year’s Six bowl is snuffed in Detroit. Candle, who has been head coach since 2017, has been linked to several coaching vacancies around college football, and tonight’s result could affect those discussions.
Both teams now await selection to a bowl game, which will be known on Sunday afternoon.