They lost one leader. University of Toledo may have gained a handful more.
With their quarterback on crutches and their offense in a daze, the defense accomplished something Saturday at home that hasn’t been said much the past decade.
They took control.
Chatter this week will center on the injured knee of a senior quarterback and the moxie shown by his freshman replacement. But make no mistake. This victory, a 33-21 decision over Eastern Washington, the second-ranked team in the Football Championship Subdivision, was about the defense’s posture facing the reality of an 0-3 start.
A unit rife with baby faces grew up Saturday, forcing stops on seven straight series after Rockets quarterback Terrance Owens left with a knee injury. Linebacker Junior Sylvestre and his buddies played the role of long reliever, keeping the team afloat after the starting pitcher got roughed up early. Sylvestre forced a fumble and intercepted a pass in the first half, handcuffing an Eagles offense that came into the night averaging a whopping 611 yards and 46 points.
"Our guys on defense have always played real hard, but it’s nice to know we don’t have to score every single time," center Zac Kerin said. "We’ve had games like that in the past."
Owens, who did not return after hurting his left knee on a first-quarter run, is expected to be OK but could miss time. Coach Matt Campbell said Owens did not suffer a tear. Toledo trailed 14-13 at the time in what had the fixings of a high-scoring affair. Owens’ replacement, true freshman Logan Woodside struggled early but gained confidence late, sparking an offense that was out of sorts without their senior captain Owens.
Woodside’s first collegiate touchdown pass required guts as he rifled a deep ball in a tight window to Bernard Reedy that resulted in an 81-yard TD with 3 minutes, 13 seconds to go in the third quarter. Defensive back Allen Brown provided solid coverage, but Woodside’s offering was in a spot that only Reedy could get to. Toledo went up 23-14 with the first touchdown by either team since the first quarter.
"We have a lot of faith in Logan," Kerin said.
Woodside drove the offense 88 yards on 12 plays for a TD on the following drive. Freshman Damion Jones-Moore ran in from four yards for his first career score. Cassius McDowell, who had 89 yards, puts the Rockets into scoring territory with a 28-yard scamper. It was a good sign the offense could drive for a key touchdown without two of its premier players. Owens wasn’t the only player to miss action. David Fluellen, the team’s most versatile threat, took some time off in the second half. Freshman Kareem Hunt also got carries in Fluellen’s absence.
"Hats off to our offensive line," Fluellen said. "Everybody thinks I’m out there making plays, but it’s really our offensive line. They make my job easy and you can see that when the young guys go in. It’s happening for them."
The early happenings foretold a shootout. Both teams scored touchdowns on their first two drives against breezy defensive resistance. Fluellen took inside runs to the outside for TD runs of 44 and 12 yards. One week after he became the first player in UT history to attain 100 yards rushing and 100 yards receiving in the same game, Fluellen had another biggie. He contributed little to the passing attack but closed with 143 yards rushing on 21 attempts.
EWU quarterback Vernon Adams, who was averaging 354 yards passing, struggled after a blazing start. He led first-quarter TD drives of 70 and 75 yards but went scoreless on the Eagles’ next eight possessions. He got untracked on the first play of the fourth quarter, finding Cooper Kupp for a 19-yard strike to close to within 23-21.
Adams’ shake moves that caused concern amounted to little. He had just two yards rushing on seven attempts. EWU converted its first three third downs but faltered on its next nine tries.