DeKALB, Ill. - The University of Toledo's football team has spent much of this season looking as if it didn't have the foggiest idea how to win games.
Last night, enveloped in real fog, the Rockets stepped into the light, finding a way to win a thriller while posting their second straight victory.
A goal-line stand, completed on the final play of the game with Northern Illinois operating from the Toledo 2-yard line, allowed the Rockets to escape with a 17-13 victory at Huskie Stadium.
UT improved to 4-6 and 2-4 in the Mid-American Conference and won a road game for the first time this season.
The Toledo defense made one big play after another in the second half. Linebacker Steven Morrison had key pressures on NIU's quarterbacks, Archie Donald scored an important sack and Nigel Morris, a cornerback who picked off a pass earlier in the game, had a monster pass break-up to end a Huskie drive in Toledo territory.
But UT had to come up with one final answer after NIU quarterback Phil Horvath made a stunning completion for a first down in UT territory on what started as a fourth-and-21 play from the NIU 32.
Two pass interference penalties moved the ball to the UT 2, from where Northern got off four plays in the final 42 seconds despite no timeouts. Horvath had a first-down pass dropped, threw out of the end zone on second down, and handed the ball to star running back Garrett Wolfe on third down. He was stacked up for no gain by Skylaar Constant and Keith Forestal as the clock kept running.
Horvath took the final snap with 0:02 left and forced a throw into coverage for the game-ending incompletion.
"Our defense was tremendous the whole game," said UT coach Tom Amstutz. "We limited [NIU's] production, kept Wolfe under control and discouraged the run. But we had to play it to the final play and I'm really proud of how we held at the end."
Toledo out-rushed the Huskies 238-23, and pretty much shut down NIU through the air, too, until the last couple of drives. Aaron Opelt, UT's quarterback, ran for one touchdown and passed for another, but was just 8-of-21 passing for 49 yards.
"That was a tough one," said NIU coach Joe Novak, whose team still had bowl aspirations entering the game. "I'm proud of our defense. I thought that gave us a chance to win. Offensively, we didn't get it done. Interceptions, fumbles, penalties, missed blocks, everything killed us at critical times."
Wolfe, who rushed for 40 yards on NIU's game-opening touchdown drive, added just 14 yards on 10 carries the remainder of the night.
The Rockets had a chance to take a 10-point lead with less than five minutes remaining in the third quarter.
But Amstutz opted to try for a first down on fourth-and-two from the Northern 10-yard line.
Starting tailback Jalen Parmele wasn't on the field and his backup, Richard Davis, was sent straight ahead into the middle of the line. He was gang tackled for no gain.
It was one of the few times NIU stopped Toledo on the ground. Parmele had 31 carries for 131 yards, going over the 100-yard mark for the second straight game, and Davis added 62 yards on 10 carries.
The decision to eschew the field goal attempt didn't come back to haunt Amstutz, thanks to his never-say-die defense.
Toledo chewed up large chunks of yardage on the ground during a second-quarter drive that saw the Rockets run on 13 out of 14 plays as a thick fog settled in and limited visibility.
UT got a 14-yard run by Parmele, a 15-yard burst by Davis, and a six-yard touchdown run by Opelt that capped a 7 1/2-minute push that covered 81 yards and gave Toledo a 17-7 lead.
Earlier, UT scored on a three-yard pass from Opelt to Steve Odom after the Rockets' defense set the table at the NIU 17-yard line. Linebacker Morrison hit NIU's starting quarterback, Horvath, to force a fumble that was recovered by teammate Eric Heller.
That tied the game at 7. Later in the first quarter, Davis cut loose on runs of 17 and 15 yards, and receiver Stephen Williams chipped in with 13 yards on a reverse, setting up a 30-yard field goal by Alex Steigerwald that gave Toledo a 10-7 lead.
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