Toledo tight end Alex Zmolik makes a catch before being tackled by Northern Illinois’ Jimmy Ward on Wednesday at the Glass Bowl.
The football team trying to deal Northern Illinois its first Mid-American Conference loss in more than two years chose an odd way to go about doing it.
The University of Toledo turned the ball over three times in the first half.
Their senior quarterback was a mess, accounting for two of the miscues.
They wore the intimidating color pink.
Yet somehow, against the 20th team in the country, the Rockets led after two ugly quarters.
It amounted to nothing more than another tease in this now one-sided rivalry.
A whole bunch of streaks are still streaking for the Huskies after Wednesday’s 35-17 victory at the Glass Bowl.
They won their 24th straight MAC game, not to mention their 15th consecutive road game. Their overall string of wins grew to 11.
Then there’s the streak everyone in Toledo will begrudgingly talk about for at least another year. Toledo has lost to NIU in four straight seasons, each with a West division title hanging in the balance, and each because the Huskies’ quarterback proved too much to handle.
"It's been the most painful feeling the past four years," guard Greg Mancz said. "You put all into it, the spring, the winter, the summer, and you're right there."
NIU’s Heisman hopeful Jordan Lynch erupted for three second-half rushing touchdowns, doing to Toledo much of the same stuff he did seven days earlier in a win at Ball State. The Huskies in both games scored the final 21 points.
The knockout blow came with 9:42 left after Lynch punctuated a 99-yard drive with a 1-yard run to go ahead 28-17. Lynch, the MAC’s leading rusher, rumbled for 62 yards on the 15-play drive.
Lynch, who had 161 yards rushing to go over 100 yards rushing for the sixth time this season, also scored on runs of 12 and 31 yards. UT limited him to 30 yards in the first half but seemed to run out of the steam needed to finish the job.
"He's a special player," Toledo coach Matt Campbell said. "He's elusive, he makes plays, he's strong. He doesn't wear down. I think that's the difference right now between him and us. He never wore down in the game and we did."
Lynch’s ability to finish drives meant NIU no longer had to rely on kicker Mathew Sims who missed three field goals in the first half to contribute to Toledo’s 10-7 lead.
The Huskies will represent the West division against East winner Buffalo or Bowling Green in the Dec. 6 MAC title game at Detroit’s Ford Field. NIU has won the last two championships.
"We've seen it for the last three years so it's pretty tough," Campbell said. "It's something we have to figure out."
Toledo concludes the regular season next Friday at Akron.
Lynch’s counterpart had a tough night as Terrance Owens struggled early, fumbling on the game’s first play on an innocent hand off attempt. Campbell pointed to blocking issues enabling a defender to cut loose into the backfield.
Owens' first pass attempt of the game resulted in an interception on the next drive, his first pick in 76 attempts. As if the last first quarter of his Glass Bowl career wasn’t forgettable enough, Owens also made a curious decision to intentionally throw out of bounds on a third-and-3 scramble from NIU’s 19. There was no downside to Owens continuing to run, even had he come up short. The Rockets settled for a Jeremiah Detmer field goal.
More confounding was a goal-line play call later in the half. Needing two yards on third down, running back Kareem Hunt took a direct snap, took a step forward, and then lobbed the ball into the end zone for tight end Alex Zmolik. NIU linebacker Boomer Mays wasn’t fooled a bit and picked off the pass. Hunt was penalized for a face mask on the tackle.
"I'll put that on my shoulders," Campbell said. "Probably should have continued to run the football there. Probably a situation where we got too cute. That's on me. That's my fault."
Campbell said it was he, and not offensive coordinator Jason Candle, who made the call.
The Huskies drove down the field ending in Sims pushing a 40-yard field goal to the right. Sims, who entered the night 13 of 17 on field goals, also missed in the half from 23 and 47 yards.
NIU turned UT’s three turnovers into just seven points, a 19-yard TD by James Spencer after the Owens fumble. Spencer scored the game’s final TD, capping a nine play, 77-yard drive with a 1-yard run with 5:39 to go. Owens added a second interception on the final drive. He finished 17 of 29 for 235 yards with touchdowns to Alonzo Russell (45 yards) and Bernard Reedy (36 yards).
The strike to Russell gave the Rockets (7-4, 5-2) the lead 51 seconds before halftime.