DEKALB, Ill. — Two troubling themes have recurred of late when the University of Toledo football team squares off against Northern Illinois.
The team that is better coached and is led by the better quarterback has come out on top in a series that has stonewalled the Rockets in their quest to take a critical step toward excellence. Both points were validated once more in a 31-24 setback on a frigid Wednesday night in which Northern Illinois continued its superiority over the Rockets to earn a third straight Mid-American Conference West title.
As evidenced by his postgame news conference, Toledo coach Matt Campbell seems to recognize the problems that afflict his program, and now he must fix them. He criticized his coaching staff for not countering an NIU adjustment that led to 24 unanswered points in the second half. It was a contrast to a year ago when then-coach Tim Beckman refused to accept blame for his misuse of timeouts in a three-point loss to the Huskies.
As he sat a few feet away from his struggling quarterback, Campbell offered a prudent point in his admiration of NIU signal caller Jordan Lynch. “The thing in this conference is the best quarterback usually has a chance to win a MAC championship,” Campbell said.
An uninspired start two years ago in a blowout loss to NIU caused Campbell to admit last week “we didn’t show up until halftime.” On Wednesday, before a national TV audience with a division title up for grabs, his players didn’t show up after halftime.
The Huskies, who will play either Kent State or Bowling Green for the MAC title on Nov. 30 at Ford Field, advanced down the field effortlessly, filleting Toledo’s maligned defense for touchdown drives of 99 and 97 yards in the third quarter. Lynch threw for 297 yards in the quarter, a product of an adjustment to a spread out the defense, and attacked the perimeter. NIU ran 27 plays in the quarter and — in a serious indictment against the defense and the coaches — never faced third down.
“They came out a lot more open in the second half,” Campbell said. “They made some really good adjustments in the second half from a coaching staff. I don’t know if we made the adjustments we needed to do to be successful as a coaching staff.”
Campbell has on several occasions accepted blame for his team’s shortcomings, such as last week in a loss to Ball State when he made a regrettable decision in the fourth quarter to not attempt a go-ahead field goal. His sharp words Wednesday seemed to be directed at others, namely defensive coordinator Tom Matukewicz. After all, Campbell is an offensive guy with minimal input on defensive matters.
The game plan that held the MAC’s top scoring offense to seven points in the first half didn’t include an effective counterpunch.
Linebacker Dan Molls, who intercepted a pass in the end zone to prevent the quarter from growing worse, said the defense was flummoxed by Lynch’s ability to pass the ball. Lynch, who notched his NCAA-record 10th 100-yard rushing game, torched them with 407 yards in the air. He registered an astounding 569 total yards and became the first player in Football Bowl Subdivision history to pass for 400 yards and run for 150 in the same game.
“We kind of prepared more for him running,” said Molls, who registered a game-high 16 tackles. “He’s a great runner. The fact he can still hurt you throwing the ball, I think, kind of caught us off guard a little bit. But we have to make adjustments.”
Lynch, a shoo-in for MAC offensive player of the year, was every bit as destructive to the Rockets as his predecessor, Chandler Harnish, who threw for six TDs in last year’s meeting.
Meanwhile, Toledo quarterback Terrance Owens has stagnated in his development after a prosperous start to the year. He was intercepted three times — including twice in the third quarter — giving him eight picks in the last seven games. He’s thrown just five TD passes in that stretch.
“The last couple of weeks, [turnovers] really seemed to hurt our chance to be successful,” Campbell said.
Pride will be on the line Tuesday when the Rockets conclude their regular season against an Akron team seeking its first win against a team from the FBS.
A win would make Toledo 9-3 heading into a bowl game. By any measure, it has been a good season. But greatness continues to elude a program that can’t outduel NIU in two critical areas.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.