BOISE — Dan Molls deserved a better ending.
The University of Toledo senior leader suffered a concussion Saturday on the opening kickoff of the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl and never returned, painting a bitter ending on a remarkable career for the stalwart linebacker.
Without their best tackler, and arguably their best player, the Rockets struggled to make stops in the run game, allowing four fourth-quarter touchdowns in a 41-15 loss to No. 18 Utah State.
Molls, the nation’s leading tackler with 166, appeared to be knocked unconscious after absorbing a punishing hit from a member of the Aggies’ coverage unit. A touching display of affection transpired on Toledo’s sideline after doctors ruled Molls out, with several players and coaches walking over to the captain to express their condolences.
The longest embrace came from head coach Matt Campbell, who has never been shy of his deep affection for Molls.
"The thing I know about Danny Molls is it would be hard to believe that this is the last game he plays football," Campbell said. "I’m proud of Danny. I know it’s not the ending he would have wanted, or any of our seniors would have wanted, but he’s a young man that’s had a tremendous career here."
Running back David Fluellen — like Molls, a first-team All-Mid-American Conference performer — re-aggravated an ankle injury later in the quarter and did not return.
With Molls exiled to the sideline, senior Robert Bell moved over from weakside linebacker to middle linebacker, and Junior Sylvestre manned the weakside spot. Neither had played the position before.
Despite missing out on a chance to pad his tackle numbers, Molls will end the year as the nation’s leader. The three players that rank second through fourth play for teams that did not qualify for the postseason.
"Once he went out everyone kind of gathered around and put the emphasis on, hey, we’re already doing this for the seniors," said Bell, whose seven tackles tied Trent Voss and Mark Singer for most on the team.
GRADUATION DAY: The bowl prevented five senior starters — Phil Lewis, Mark Singer, Hank Keighley, Cordale Scott, and Jermaine Robinson — from participating in Saturday’s commencement ceremony at Toledo.
BRUTAL 2013 SLATE: Toledo will open the 2013 season with a demanding three-week stretch that begins with road games against two teams from the Southeastern Conference. After facing Florida and Missouri in consecutive weeks, the Rockets will host an Eastern Washington team that this year advanced to the semifinals of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
Toledo’s fourth and final non-conference tilt will come Oct. 19 against Navy, which will play in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on Dec. 29 against Arizona State. Florida will play Louisville on Jan. 2 in the Sugar Bowl.
CAMPBELL INCENTIVES: Campbell had $32,500 riding on the outcome of the game, per the incentives clause of his contract. By reaching a bowl, the first-year coach pocketed $20,000. A win would have netted him an additional $30,000. He earned $12,500 when the Rockets notched their ninth win in the regular season, and was due an extra $2,500 if they could have added a 10th win.
SHORT YARDS: The announced attendance of 29,243 is the largest at Bronco Stadium for a bowl game that did not involve Boise State. ... Toledo mayor Mike Bell made the trip and watched the game from the Rockets’ sideline. ... The local temperature at kickoff was 39 degrees. ... Toledo safety Jermaine Robinson was ejected from the game after being assessed a personal foul late in the game. ... Fifth-year senior Jimmy Davidson, of Findlay, made his first career catch on Toledo’s final drive.