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2023 MAC Football Week 1 Game Recap: Illinois Fighting Illini 30, Toledo Rockets 28

A miracle play for the Illini crashes the Rockets’ hope for the coveted Big Ten-MAC upset bid.

NCAA Football: Toledo at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Toledo Rockets (0-1) are not in the business of moral victories this year.

Although they played a really solid game, Saturday night’s loss at Illinois is going to sting for the next few days. They fought off various momentum shifts to get a couple of leads, but were ultimately beaten on a Hail Mary-esque play which set up the game-winning field goal late in the fourth, falling to the Illinois Fighting Illini (1-0) by a final score of 30-28.

With Toledo up 28-27, the Fighting Illini were faced with a fourth-and-four at their own 31-yard line with just over two minutes left in the game. After Rockets senior linebacker Terrance Taylor used a spin move to beat his man and get into the backfield immediately on the play, it looked like game over for Illinois. It was going to be another sack for Taylor to put him at 2.5 on the night, and Toledo would’ve likely just needed one first down on offense to be able to ice the game and walk away winners.

Instead, Illini quarterback Luke Altmyer was able to heave a ball deep down the field about a tenth of a second before getting crushed by Taylor.

While everyone was still trying to figure out how Altmyer got the pass off, his receiver downfield Casey Washington made an even more impressive play to haul the ball in with Toledo cornerback Chris McDonald glued to him. The play was good for 33 yards, putting Illinois in field goal range. They’d get a few more yards and make a chip shot field goal with five seconds left to escape with a Week 1 win.

The game was undoubtedly a heartbreaker for Jason Candle’s Rockets, especially as the team had dictated the pace of play over the first 58 minutes of the contest.

Bret Bielema’s offense caught Toledo off guard on the opening drive of the game, as Altmyer marched the team right down the field on a drive that resulted in a Josh McCray rushing touchdown. The Rockets responded impressively, as Dequan Finn and the rest of the offense put together a 78-yard drive which, while ending in a field goal, got some momentum back for the road team. The drive was highlighted by a 23-yard improvised run by Finn on third-and-27 to make the field goal easy for Luke Pawlak.

The Rockets’ defense settled in for the rest of the first half and stopped Illinois on three straight drives. Coverage of receivers was solid during this stretch as Toledo forced Altmyer into several incompletions. Dequan Finn orchestrated a beautiful drive taking the team 73 yards downfield in less than 90 seconds as the clock wound down on the half, ultimately capping off the drive with a beautiful pass to Jerjuan Newton for a 15-yard touchdown with four seconds to go.

The Rockets picked up right where they left off to start the third quarter, as Finn completed several throws during a 75-yard drive that resulted in a passing touchdown to running back Peny Boone. The defense stepped up once again as well, with Maxen Hook picking up an interception to kill the fourth-straight Illinois drive in a row. The pick put Toledo in prime position to put together a nice drive and get some distance up 19-7 midway through the third.

However, another big momentum shift was in order, as Illinois’ Miles Scott anticipated an underthrown ball by Finn, snagged it, and took it to the house to get his team right back in it. It was enough to spark an Illini run, as Toledo’s offense was forced into two three-and-outs and Luke Altmyer found Pat Bryant for two passing touchdowns, flipping the script to build a 27-19 lead early in the fourth quarter.

Even at this point with everything going Illinois’ way, Toledo had more up its sleeve.

After getting a field goal and forcing a punt, Finn and the offense strung together a few first downs. The biggest one came on third-and-14 in the Illinois red zone on a roughing the passer penalty by Gabe Jacas. The Rockets took advantage, as Finn found the endzone to give his team a 28-27 lead. Finn finished with 230 yards in the air on 20-of-36 passing with two touchdowns and a pick, while also rushing for 75 yards and one TD.

Although Altmyer’s prayer was answered on fourth down late in the fourth, Toledo should feel like they played well enough to win. To battle back from two deficits on the road against a Big Ten squad with a great defense is not easy.

Football is a game of inches and sometimes just millimeters, and that felt like the difference between a win and a loss on Saturday night for the Rockets. Had Luke Altmyer hesitated for even a moment with Terrance Taylor all up in his grill, Toledo would have their signature win in a season they have very high hopes for.

The Rockets should focus on what went right for them Saturday and continue to try to replicate it. Dequan Finn looked like the team leader and playmaker that we saw last year. Junior Vandeross III could be emerging as a star on offense as he led the team with six receptions and 90 yards Saturday in just his second collegiate game. The running game also looked solid as the team ran for 186 yards led by Jacquez Stuart who had 82 of those.

Toledo’s passing defense looked strong for the most part with good pressure from the front seven and excellent coverage by the defensive back unit. The ability to adapt better to a creative running game will be something to look for in Toledo’s defense as the year goes on.

Toledo will be looking to shake off this loss and take care of FCS Texas Southern at home at the Glass Bowl in Week 2.