As a team that entered the season with conference championship hopes, the Toledo Rockets did not expect to be two scores behind Football Championship Series squad New Hampshire at home in their season opener. Fortunately for the hosts, that start of the game was not representative of the finish.
New starting quarterback Phillip Ely threw for 337 yards and four touchdowns in his Rockets debut, leading Toledo to a 54-20 win over New Hampshire Saturday at the Glass Bowl. While New Hampshire, ranked fourth in the FCS, led 14-3 at one point, a 51-6 run to close the game meant the Rockets were able to turn an uncomfortable start into a comfortable win. Sophomore running back Kareem Hunt also added 134 yards and two touchdowns on the ground to help balance the Toledo attack, which racked up 360 passing yards to go along with 314 on the ground.
New Hampshire quarterback Sean Goldrich started the game on fire, ending with a respectable line of 291 yards and two touchdowns in the loss, but the Wildcats as a team were held to just 37 yards rushing.
Although Toledo received the opening kickoff, it was the Wildcats that drew first blood after the Rockets' starting drive stalled. Goldrich led an effective 10-play, 71-yard drive that included three third-down conversions and culminated in a 35-yard touchdown pass from Goldrich to receiver R.J. Harris to put New Hampshire up 7-0 just under six minutes in.
The visitors picked on Rockets sophomore cornerback Jordan Martin for all five completions on the drive, including a well-executed pick play that resulted in the touchdown.
Toledo got the offense going on the second drive, riding 44 rushing yards from Kareem Hunt into its first points of the evening. However, the Rockets ran out of steam after earning a first down on the 9-yard line, settling for a 22-yard Jeremiah Detmer field goal to pull within 7-3.
After the teams traded punts, New Hampshire again began rolling in its first drive of the second quarter. The Wildcats went 87 yards over 13 plays in a drive that saw three third-down conversions before Goldrich plunged into the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown to put the visitors up 14-3.
To add insult to injury for Toledo, starting free safety Chaz Whittaker was ejected during the drive for a late hit to the head of Goldrich after a 9-yard scramble.
Ely took matters into his own hands to awaken the Rocket's stagnant attack on the ensuing drive, leading the Rockets 73 yards for a touchdown in just five plays. Most of those yards came on a 64-yard touchdown to sophomore receiver Corey Jones. Ely delivered a 20-yard bullet over the middle and Jones outran the Wildcats secondary after the catch for his first career touchdown, and Ely's first as a Rocket, pulling the hosts within four points.
A failed New Hampshire drive later, the Rockets took over on their own 4-yard line with 2:16 left in the first half. Ely connected on all five of his pass attempts in the two-minute drill, and Hunt finished off the drive with a 2-yard touchdown run with 24 seconds left. A botched snapper-holder connection on the point after ended the drive with a thud for Toledo, but it meant the Rockets took a 16-14 lead, their first in the game, into the locker room at halftime.
The Wildcats opened the second half with what looked to be a standard three-and-out, but punter Brad Prasky attempted to run up the middle for a first down on a fake punt on 4th-and-1. However, Toledo linebacker Ray Bush pasted him for a 2-yard loss, giving Toledo excellent field position on the opposing 37-yard line.
The Rockets quickly took advantage, as Ely continued his hot night by completing three of four pass attempts to drive his squad to the 2-yard line. There, Hunt plunged it in for his second touchdown of the night to put Toledo up 23-14 at 10:49 of the third quarter.
Another three-and-out by New Hampshire preceded another efficient drive for the Rockets. Ely marched his offense 72 yards in just seven plays, capped off with a 9-yard touchdown strike to Justin Olack. The score represented 27 unanswered points for Toledo, extending its lead to 30-14.
New Hampshire put the brakes on Toledo's momentum a bit on the next drive, as the Wildcats used a key 32-yard gain on a trick play that started as a wide receiver reverse, in which the ball carrier lateraled backwards to Goldstein, who completed a wide receiver screen to the surprise of the Rockets defense. The scoring drive ended with Goldstein completing an 8-yard pass to halfback Nico Steriti, but a failed Steriti run on the ensuing two-point try kept Toledo's advantage at 30-20 with 4:33 left in the third quarter.
Undeterred, the Rockets offense kept rolling, as an Ely 8-yard touchdown pass to Olack (Ely's third of the game and Olack's second) capped off a 75-yard drive to put the Rockets up 37-20 with 1:16 remaining in the third frame.
The hosts dodged a bullet on New Hampshire's next drive, when Wildcats receiver Harris dropped a sure 52-yard touchdown pass after getting behind the Rockets secondary. The drive fizzled after that play, and a good punt put Toledo on its own three-yard line.
Despite the field position, the Rockets wasted no time extending the lead, driving 97 yards on just five plays, all runs, to take their advantage to 44-20 with just over 12 minutes left. Backup running back Damion Jones-Moore started the drive with a 42-yard scamper and finished it with a 4-yard touchdown.
A 14-yard punt ended New Hampshire's next drive, which gave Toledo a much shorter field to work with. Ely got every one of the 40 yards the Rockets needed in a single play, as he connected with freshman running back Terry Swanson for a 40-yard touchdown on a screen pass. It was Swanson's first career touch, and moved the Rockets' lead to 51-20.
Toledo's redshirt freshman quarterback Michael Julian entered for his first collegiate action during garbage time, completing a pass and handing off to Swanson to set up a 27-yard Detmer field goal to make it 54-20 with four minutes left. While New Hampshire drove for some consolation points to close the game, Rockets reserve safety Delando Johnson made an acrobatic interception in the end zone to seal the 54-20 victory.
The ultimately decisive win means the Rockets are 1-0 to start the season. Things will not get any easier in the second week, however, as 1-0 Missouri will visit the Glass Bowl Sept. 6.