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After Lance Moore led the nation in pass receptions last season, it was no surprise that he would be option No. 1 when the pass-crazy University of Toledo offense loaded up to throw the ball in 2004. And as teams concentrated their resources on stopping Moore, a vacuum was created.
Last night, Kenny Higgins stepped into that void, that wide-open space. He had three touchdowns and a school-record 233 yards in receptions in a 52-14 rout of Ball State in a Mid-American Conference game at the Glass Bowl.
Higgins, a senior who had just 11 receptions for 194 yards in the first four games of the season, went wild on the Cardinals, starting off with a 60-yard touchdown reception in the game's first minutes, and then adding a UT-record 96-yard scoring catch a short time later. He finished with 10 receptions, and his three TD catches also tied a UT record.
Quarterback Bruce Gradkowski tied his own UT record with six TD passes, finishing 26-of-34 for 455 yards.
"Everyone who plays expects to have a big game," Higgins said. "Tonight, it just happened to be my night. My time came, and I took advantage of it."
Higgins, who came to UT after two seasons at Long Beach City College in California, had just four receptions last season, when Moore tied the MAC record with 103. Toledo coach Tom Amstutz had often touted Higgins' athletic talents, and expected the 6-1, 184-pounder to make dynamic catches and runs.
"Kenny has been very patient, and now he is a legitimate threat for our offense," Amstutz said. "He did a lot of special things tonight, and used his talents to make big plays."
UT (3-2, 2-0) drove 90 yards in seven plays to open the game, first pounding the middle with Quinton Broussard, and then having quarterback Gradkowski hook up with a wide-open Higgins for a 60-yard touchdown pass play on a third-and-long. Jason Robbins kicked the first of his seven extra points for a 7-0 Toledo lead just three minutes into the game.
After stuffing Ball State, the Rockets got the ball back, but were pinned at their own 4-yard line. Gradkowski faked a handoff and rolled right, then made a soft lob pass to Higgins all alone along the UT sideline. Higgins won a foot race the length of the field for a 96-yard scoring play and a 14-0 lead.
That is the longest touchdown pass in Toledo history, breaking the mark set in 1996 when Mark Melfi threw to Jerry Evans for a 92-yarder against Central Michigan.
"We have some great targets out there," Gradkowski said, "and some teams might say they have to watch where Moore's at. That frees up other guys, and with his speed, Kenny is able to just run by guys. If I put the ball in the vicinity of our receivers, they're going to make the play."
Moore had just two receptions for 19 yards, but Steve Odom had five catches for 88 yards, and Terrance Hudson caught two touchdown passes.
UT's offense, which had 645 yards, also utilized Broussard, who stepped into the starting role at tailback and rushed for a career-high 136 yards on 17 carries. Broussard replaced the injured Trinity Dawson.
"We wanted to run the ball, and get them thinking that we were going to run the ball down the field, and then just hit them with the pass," Broussard said. "We wanted to mix it up and keep them off-balance."
Gradkowski hooked up with Moore and Higgins for big gains on UT's next posssession. Gradkowski then flipped a short pass to Scooter McDougle in the backfield, and the 225-pound sophomore running back got a head of steam and powered into the end zone for a 21-0 lead with just under two minutes left in the opening quarter.
Ball State (1-4, 1-1) cut the UT lead to 21-7 in the first two minutes of the second period when true freshman quarterback Cole Stinson hit Ryan Hahaj on a five-yard touchdown pass.
Gradkowski hit Odom for 41 yards on Toledo's do-all bubble screen, but after the Rockets stalled at the 18, they settled for a 36-yard field goal from Robbins and a 24-7 advantage.
The Cardinals cut the Toledo lead to 24-14 with just under two minutes left in the first half when McDougle fumbled the ball and Ball State's Ryan Patrick picked it up and went 40 yards for a TD.
UT scored again before half as Gradkowski found Hudson on the edge of the end zone. Hudson twisted his body to get a foot down inbounds on a 36-yard play for a 31-14 edge.
The Rockets continued to build on the lead by scoring on their first possession of the second half. Gradkowski hooked up with Higgins on an eight-yard TD pass for a 38-14 lead.
The UT defense set up the Rockets' next score as Mike Alston broke through and sacked Stinson, forcing a fumble that Alston recovered at the Ball State 33. Broussard finished the drive from two yards out to stretch the Toledo lead to 45-14.
Gradkowski hooked up with Hudson for a 14-yard scoring pass with about seven minutes left, giving him six TD passes. He threw for six TDs last season against Buffalo.
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