BOWLING GREEN — Two days before The Battle of I-75, Matt Campbell began questioning his preparation.
With 20 hours to spend on team activities each week, the University of Toledo coach wondered if he was wasting precious time drawing up offensive plays that seldom see the light of day on Saturdays.
“Lo and behold that’s the football gods,” Campbell said Saturday after one of those plays worked.
No one could argue against divine intervention contributing to Toledo’s nail-biting 28-25 win in front of a chilly crowd of 21,724 at Bowling Green.
The Rockets overcame the dejection of blowing a 21-point lead and braved through an injury to their best player for the second week in a row. They benefitted from uncharacteristic miscues by Bowling Green’s seniors, a class that fell a play short in their bid to secure an elusive win over their neighbor to the north.
The play that resulted in the winning score — an 11-yard touchdown strike on fourth down from Terrance Owens to Alonzo Russell — nearly was ripped from the playbook last week. Campbell can’t remember the last time Toledo made the call, a five-receiver set with three players split to one side and two to the other.
“I don’t know to be honest with you,” he said.
Russell, split to the side with three receivers, had an option to break his route outside or inside. He chose inside, after reading a safety’s movement, and the ball was waiting for him to complete a fourth-and-9 connection with 1:22 left.
One play earlier, on third-and-26, Owens scrambled for 17 yards to ease the burden on the do-or-die fourth down.
“That’s not a great place to be,” Campbell said of a daunting down-and-distance brought on by Bernard Reedy’s pass interference on second down. “If anybody’s coaching, don’t put your kids in that position.”
Owens, who played the best game of his shaky senior season, accounted for 85 yards on the final drive — 52 passing, 33 running. He found Reedy across the middle for 32 yards to break the offense from a second-half rut.
This win, UT’s fourth in a row over its foe to the south, is perhaps the finest in Campbell’s one-plus seasons as coach. Few if any in that period have touched on so many emotions, from building a 21-point lead to falling behind by four to a snapshot of the team’s seniors hoisting the rivalry trophy flashing four fingers to signify their career-long superiority.
The Rockets (5-3, 3-1) remain in sight of Mid-American Conference unbeatens Ball State and Northern Illinois in the West division.
BG (5-3, 3-1), which was a four-point favorite, has no valid excuses for letting its slide to UT drag on. Penalties by senior cornerbacks Aaron Foster (roughing the kicker) and Cameron Truss (unsportsmanlike conduct) turned what should have been a first-quarter field goal by UT into a five-yard touchdown from Owens to Russell. Russell pulled down the pass with one-hand — not unlike the Internet-viral grab he made at Central Michigan — to cap an 18 play, 89-yard drive.
“When you go back, those are critical plays in the game,” BG coach Dave Clawson said. “And that’s on us. They didn’t make critical mistakes and made plays.”
In the third quarter, senior lineman Dominic Flewellyn jumped prematurely on fourth-and-goal inside the 1. A Tyler Tate field goal ensued, cutting the deficit to 21-10, but leaving Toledo feeling grateful.
“I knew the cadence, but I guess I got overanxious,” Flewellyn said. “I just jumped. People were telling me you can’t put this on one play, but I knew that play was tough for us — it was for three points instead of seven.”
Another senior, Shaun Joplin, dropped a pass for big yardage on third down of the final drive. Joplin had cornerback Jordan Martin beat in UT territory, and Johnson’s offering was good enough. Johnson threw incomplete to Heath Jackson the next play to effectively end the game.
“You can’t blame any one of those plays [alone],” Clawson said. “If we make any of them different, it could have been a different game. We did enough things wrong as a team that we’re not going to put this loss on any one play or any one player.”
Senior linebacker Paul Swan called the loss “one of the toughest in my life.” He said he has cried after a loss just once before, when his high school basketball team was bounced from the playoffs by a rival in Swan’s senior season.
BG rallied in the fourth to go up 25-21 on TD drives of 77 and 84 yards, both ending on a Travis Greene seven-yard run. The Falcons converted three times on third down on the go-ahead drive, showing no resemblance of the offense that mustered 80 yards on their first three drives.
UT scored TDs on all three first half drives, rallying against the MAC’s top defense despite the loss of star running back David Fluellen. Fluellen ran three times on the opening drive for 61 yards before leaving with an ankle injury. Freshman Kareem Hunt (21 carries, 114 yards, one TD) filled in solidly just as he did last week when Fluellen left against Navy with a back injury.
UT’s offensive line dominated the first half, just as Clawson feared they would.
“Kudos to BG,” UT defensive end Jayrone Elliott said. “It’s been great playing them for four years. Hopefully we’ll see them in the MAC championship.”