BOISE — It can be debated which quarter — the first or the last — was more unkind to the University of Toledo in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
Marquee players could not stay healthy in the opening 15 minutes, and the defense could not tackle in the final frame, pointing to a 41-15 loss to No. 18 Utah State in a MAC vs. WAC matchup the Rockets were poised to win with nine minutes to go.
Injuries suffered early by arguably its two best players, linebacker Dan Molls (concussion) and running back David Fluellen (ankle), haunted Toledo in the fourth quarter when it failed to convert in the red zone on fourth down — Fluellen’s time to shine — and allowed Utah State running back Kerwyn Williams to explode for 191 of his 235 rushing yards. One could reasonably suggest that Molls, the nation’s leading tackler, would have clogged a lane or two that Williams exploited for three touchdowns in the quarter.
A patchwork linebackers corps — in which Robert Bell and Junior Sylvestre were forced to man a foreign position to compensate for the loss of their defensive standout — might have contributed to Williams ripping off runs of 63, 56, and 25 yards. His understudy, Joe Hill, kicked dirt on the Rockets with under two minutes to go, maneuvering around would-be tacklers for a 24-yard TD run.
"I felt like we were kind of a gap short in some of the running lanes," coach Matt Campbell said. "I think some of it was trying to get some of those new guys in positions."
The same explanation might be given for when, in the first quarter, quarterback Chuckie Keeton turned an option run upfield for a 62-yard jaunt.
It is hard to imagine, given the final spread, that Toledo in the fourth quarter needed to gain only nine yards to tie the game. Calling on Fluellen to convert on fourth-and-1 would have been the obvious decision, but the first team All-Mid-American Conference back was somewhere else, having re-aggravated the ankle he sprained one month ago at Northern Illinois. A run up the middle with quarterback Terrance Owens, who replaced starter Austin Dantin to begin the quarter, got nowhere.
The Rockets, who were trying to win 10 games for the first time since 2001, could muster only a field goal after recovering a Williams fumble on the next play, cutting the deficit to 13-9.
"That’s two football games this year where fourth-and-1 cost us," Campbell said, referring to a loss to Ball State when the Cardinals stuffed Fluellen in the fourth quarter.
Fluellen, who carried seven times for 38 yards before limping to the sideline, concludes his breakout junior season two yards shy of 1,500. In his absence, receiver Bernard Reedy picked up a heavy dose of snaps at running back, a position at which he practiced throughout the week, and carried 10 times for 50 yards.
"That was heavy in the game plan," said Reedy, who also caught six passes. "I felt like if anybody went down tonight I had to be ready to execute."
Reedy’s 87-yard kickoff return after Williams’ third score ensured the Rockets (9-4) would cross the goal line on a day when their first nine points came off the right foot of Jeremiah Detmer. What a remarkable season it was for the sophomore Detmer, whose 37-yard field goal on Toledo’s first possession established a program record for makes in a season. Detmer tacked on two more to up his total to 24 — the last 17 of which came in succession. His last miss happened Sept. 29 — about two-and-a-half months ago — when Western Michigan blocked a 52-yard attempt.
Detmer’s feats, as impressive as they might be, do not compare favorably to the one Utah State produced this season by not surrendering a first-quarter touchdown. The Aggies (11-2), who will finish ranked in the top 25 for the first time since 1961, outscored opponents in the opening quarter by a staggering 138-9.
The first quarter for Toledo, at least on Saturday, wasn’t as kind.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.