DEKALB, Ill. — The road to Detroit was detoured in the third quarter on Wednesday.
Looking inspired early on to end Northern Illinois’ reign in the division, the University of Toledo flatlined after halftime, falling 31-24 in a must-win game at Huskie Stadium.
A crowd of 17,813 saw NIU clinch its third straight Mid-American Conference West title — all of which came at the hands of the Rockets — by scoring 24 unanswered points in the second half.
The first 15 minutes after halftime were an abomination for the Rockets, who couldn’t tackle, couldn’t protect the football, and couldn’t capitalize on the few breaks they received. The evidence:
■ Toledo had several defenders in the area of receiver Martel Moore, but none could bring him down after he snared a pass in the flat. Moore broke free from Robert Bell’s ankle tackle, dropped down to one hand to maintain balance, and zipped 73 yards to tie the game at 14-14 just 18 seconds into the quarter, leaving a confounded defense in his wake. "Probably the telltale sign of this football game," Toledo coach Matt Campbell said.
■ Bernard Reedy slipped and fell near the goal line on a crossing route, and Rashaan Melvin laid out to pick off Terrance Owens at the 1. NIU marched 99 yards in 2 minutes, 43 seconds for the go-ahead touchdown. "We had a good play call, but Reedy slipped," said Owens, who was intercepted three times.
■ The play call was great, but quarterback-turned-receiver Dwight Macon overshot David Fluellen and Alonzo Russell in the end zone on a double-pass. It was unclear whom Macon intended the pass for, but Fluellen and Russell both were within an eyelash of coming up with it. Two plays later NIU stuffed Fluellen on fourth down.
■ When something finally went right — Dan Molls intercepting a pass at the 3 to keep the Huskies out of the end zone — another gaffe ensued. Molls rumbled 63 yards, and two plays later NIU’s Tyrone Cook picked off Owens at the 3. Owens, under duress, didn’t look before heaving a deep ball down the sideline for Fluellen that was well covered. NIU needed just 1:41 to drive 97 yards, culminating in Akeem Daniels’ six-yard run.
■ Lynch threw for 296 yards and two touchdowns in the quarter, completing 13 of 15 attempts. Amazingly, the Huskies gained 347 yards in the quarter without facing a third down.
"They made some really good adjustments in the second half from a coaching staff," Campbell said. "I don't know if we made the adjustments we needed to do to be successful as a coaching staff."
Had Toledo prevailed, it only would have needed to beat one-win Akron next week to capture the division and advance to the MAC title game Nov. 30 at Detroit’s Ford Field.
The Rockets didn’t go away softly. After NIU widened the gap to 31-14 with a field goal early in the fourth quarter, UT embarked on a nine-play drive ending in Cassius McDowell’s five-yard TD run. An ensuing fumble caused by Ross Madison and recovered by Junior Sylvestre led to a 34-yard Jeremiah Detmer field goal, closing the hole to seven with 5:57 to go. It was Detmer’s 21st field goal, tying the program record for a single season.
Lynch, who passed for 407 yards and rushed for 162s, converted third downs in the air and on the ground on the final possession to secure the win.
Taking a 14-7 advantage into halftime, Toledo (8-3, 5-2) looked poised to snap NIU’s 20-game home win streak and 14-game MAC win streak.
Both teams lost fumbles on the opponent’s end of the field to squash first-quarter drives. A booth review showed Toledo safety Jermaine Robinson stripping Lynch on third down and recovering the ball at the 7. The Rockets drove to NIU’s 36 where Jimmie Ward knocked the ball loose from Fluellen’s clutch.
Ward had a busy first half, also picking off a pass in Toledo territory but drawing a penalty for late hit when he tackled Bernard Reedy out of bounds to fortify a Rockets’ scoring drive. Owens connected with Reedy (28 yards), Alonzo Russell (20), and Cordale Scott (14) before finishing the possession with a one-yard run.
Toledo struck fast, covering 72 yards on a 12-play opening drive that ended in Fluellen’s one-yard touchdown run. Fluellen, whose 1,381 rushing yards entering the day were second most in the nation, touched the ball seven times on the drive, including six runs.
Toledo’s 7-0 lead after the first quarter marked the first time since the season opener that NIU failed to score in the first 15 minutes.
The Rockets, who dropped their second straight after an eight-game win streak, will conclude their regular season schedule Tuesday at home against an Akron team that will be seeking its first league win.
"This Rocket football team is not done," said Molls, who had a game-high 16 tackles. "There's a lot of things we can still accomplish this season. We're not quitting. The way this team and this defense played in the fourth quarter, the way we finished, that's how you're going to see us finish this season."
Contact Ryan Autullo at: email@example.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.