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AKRON — Two losses to open the regular season dampened expectations for a University of Toledo football team that garnered preseason attention from many national pundits.
Falling to Florida and Missouri, though, is forgivable in just about any year. The two losses to close this 12-game slate are far more troubling.
It’s difficult to argue the Rockets had a good season after Friday’s 31-29 loss at middling Akron on a sub-30 degree afternoon at InfoCision Stadium. Toledo, whose Mid-American Conference title hopes were dashed a week earlier by Northern Illinois, suffered three league losses for the first time since dropping five in Tim Beckman’s first year as coach in 2009.
At 7-5 overall, the Rockets find themselves with a shrinking bargaining chip for bowl game politicking, and it’s not out of the question Toledo could be left out of the postseason altogether.
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Uncharacteristically bad special teams contributed to the end of an 11-game win streak over MAC East opponents. Two fake punts — one successful by Akron, one failed by Toledo — led to Zips touchdowns in both halves.
A missed blocking assignment resulted in a blocked extra point midway through the fourth quarter.
Toledo in turn was forced to go for two after Marc Remy’s three-yard TD run with 59 seconds to go. A Terrance Owens pass to Justin Olack fell incomplete, prompting a sideline outburst by coach Matt Campbell. Campbell, holding onto his ball cap in one hand and his head set in the other, lashed out at an official who did not call pass interference. Defensive back Bryce Cheek appeared to be draped over the back of Olack in the end zone.
“There’s no question,” Campbell said. “There was contact. It’s one of those situations where you can make a lot to do with it or you can understand we put ourselves in that situation.”
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Campbell had a rough 34th birthday, losing to a sub-.500 team — Akron won its third straight to finish 5-7 — and learning an hour or so later Toledo’s rival Bowling Green won at Buffalo to capture the MAC East crown. BG will play unbeaten Northern Illinois next Friday for the overall title, a matchup that came about partially because NIU erased a halftime deficit last week to blast Toledo 35-17.
Offensive lineman Greg Mancz said any bitter feelings lingering from the NIU loss did not contribute to a lackluster performance Friday. The offense mustered 388 yards — its lowest total since the Oct. 26 Bowling Green game — and faltered on its first six third downs.
“I don’t think we played our best football,” he said. “I don’t think it was because of a lack of energy. We definitely were trying our hardest and they had a couple things. They just out executed us in the first half.”
The Zips led 17-10 at the break after a brazen decision by coach Terry Bowden to call timeout and order a fake punt on fourth-and-3 at his own 16-yard line. Upback Austin Bailey rumbled for 16 yards against a flat-footed return unit. Quarterback Kyle Pohl exposed the deep middle of the field for completions of 26 and 27 yards to set up a two-yard Jawon Chisholm TD run.
Of his usually reliable special teams, Campbell said, “We were kind of all over the place.”
Toledo’s turn for a fake punt fizzled. After a Bernard Reedy dropped pass on third-and-7, the punt team lined up from its 34 to try a bit of trickery practiced during the week.
Upback Junior Sylvestre, who ranks among the team’s fastest players, ran outside where he was stopped for one yard.
“It looked like it was there,” Campbell said. “Junior had a chance to maybe go in instead of go out, but we have to look at it and evaluate it.”
Added Sylvestre: “There are three phases to the game. Special teams is a huge part and we didn’t capitalize all the time.”
Akron scored on the next play when Tyrell Goodman beat corner Jordan Martin on a deep slant to go up 31-17.
Owens located Reedy in the endzone for a 28-yard TD strike three plays later for Reedy’s eighth TD catch of the year. Akron’s Cody Grice burst up the middle and blocked the extra point, keeping the score at 31-23 and likely ensuring Toledo would need overtime to win.
Owens, who needed an injection at halftime to ease the pain of a hip pointer, was intercepted early in the fourth quarter on a slant pass in the endzone thrown behind Alonzo Russell. The deficit remained 24-17.
“Dang, you come away with points and you’re back in the game,” Campbell said.
Owens matched his season-high with three TD passes, connecting twice with Dwight Macon on gains of nine and 12 yards.
Akron’s Pohl was 18 of 29 for 259 yards and three TDs.
Remy, who took over in the third quarter for injured Kareem Hunt, finished with 103 yards. Hunt matched Remy’s rushing total, marking the fifth time in six games he eclipsed 100 yards.