The law of averages suggested the University of Toledo football team at some point would walk away from the short end of a close game.
Few teams can crawl over a minefield week after week and avoid suffering wounds, though the Rockets had jeopardized the validity of that logic before they were stung Tuesday at the Glass Bowl.
For the past several weeks, and really all season, Toledo was cool in the face of rising fourth-quarter temperatures, routinely turning in momentous plays that became the guts of an eight-game win streak that catapulted them into the national picture.
Composure, a buzz word coach Matt Campbell uses to attribute his team’s crunch time theatrics, was absent on a chilly midweek loss to Ball State, 34-27.
The No. 23-ranked Rockets were penalized 10 times, including two that erased first-half touchdowns. The defense, which usually stamps its imprint with a stop or a turnover at an opportune moment, failed to get off the field three times on third down in the final quarter.
And a coaching decision proved regrettable. Campbell passed up a chip-shot field goal with six minutes to go that would have given his team the lead, and the offense failed to convert.
"Something always is going to happen in the game where you have to overcome adversity," said running back David Fluellen, who leads the nation with 1,381 rushing yards after registering 200 more Tuesday. "That’s what we did in past games. We weren’t able to handle adversity."
Some will make the case Toledo (8-2, 5-1 Mid-American Conference) lacked focus, its minds fixated on its first national ranking in 11 years and on next Wednesday’s showdown for the West title at Northern Illinois. That seems to be a lazy explanation, given that Toledo’s play was not not a drastic dropoff, if at all, from wins the past month over Buffalo, Cincinnati, Eastern Michigan, and Central Michigan.
In each of those games, the outcome was traced to a critical play or sequence. Against Ball State (7-3, 4-2), which unlike Toledo has endured a daunting conference schedule, that moment never came. The Cardinals converted twice on third down on the game-winning touchdown drive, the first after Keith Wenning slipped loose for 19 yards into Toledo territory. Four plays later, Zane Fakes snagged a difficult catch to move the chains on third-and-3.
Following Jahwan Edwards’ 15-yard rushing TD, Toledo’s offense managed just three yards on four plays to end the game.
The Rockets outrushed BSU by 145 yards and won the turnover margin three to one. What they didn’t do was reproduce the magic they’ve shown so many times before with the outcome swaying in the balance.
"They’re a good football team and it really came down to their guys making key plays in critical situations and we didn’t make them," said linebacker Dan Molls, who recorded 16 tackles to up his total to a nation-leading 132.
Had it emerged victoriously, Toledo would’ve captured the West title next week with a win at Northern Illinois. As it is, additional work must be done. Wins over the Huskies, who denied the Rockets the division title the past two years, and a week later against lowly Akron remains the only path to Detroit.
NIU (9-1, 6-0), which has not lost since an 18-17 setback to Iowa in the opener at Chicago’s Soldier Field, has outscored its opponents 406 to 197. Quarterback Jordan Lynch, whom the university is touting as a Heisman Trophy contender, might be the best offensive player the Rockets have seen.
"We’re not going to make excuses why we can’t go out there and win a football game," Molls said. "Unfortunately we have to make a long trip. We have to play them in their stadium. But that’s how it goes. We’re going to have to prepare better than we have before and we’re just going to have to come out ready to play with an extreme amount of focus. We have the guys that can do it and we have the senior leadership that can get us in the right spot to win that football game."
Contact Ryan Autullo at: email@example.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade