The first cold ones cracked open before dawn, the optimism flowing.
“Toledo is here to play,” Scott Meyers said outside his RV, which he he rolled onto Stadium Drive shortly after 6 a.m.
And so was the city.
Toledo fans cheer after Toledo scores its first touchdown against Miami.
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Soon enough, the tailgate lots were full, 19-year-olds ordinarily still in bed were lined up 100 deep at the student gates, and the Glass Bowl was rocking, 28,117 strong. In anticipation of the oddest game of the college football season — a once-in-forever visit from the five-time national champion Miami Hurricanes — the scene on the Bancroft Street campus Saturday truly felt big time.
“Awesome,” Rockets coach Jason Candle said. “Unbelievable atmosphere.”
Then the game began.
As it happens, the big-city visitors were unwilling to go along, and, for that matter, unimpressed by our little to-do. On a steamy, microwaved afternoon on loan from South Florida, the 21st-ranked Hurricanes kicked up their muddy cleats on Toledo’s chaise lounge and made themselves at home in a 49-24 win.
Afterward, receiver Lawrence Cager said, “I’m happy to get away from Ohio. It’s a little boring.”
Great to see you, too, Larry!
Unfortunately, Toledo missed its chance to fire back on the field.
If the city showed up in a big way, the Rockets, well, showed, producing some good — see: quarterback Mitch Guadagni — some bad, and ultimately the outcome that reasonably should have been expected.
Here’s what we learned: Toledo is a good MAC team and Miami is a good ACC team.
Sure, we could spend the next 500 words analyzing what went wrong as Toledo fell behind 21-0, then on what seemed like every defensive third down — why are their defensive backs positioned in Maumee? — in the second half.
After Toledo pulled within seven for the second time in the third quarter, Miami converted three third downs and a fourth down on its ensuing drive to push ahead 35-21.
So many times, as the old yard quaked and momentum appeared set to swing entirely toward the home team, one stop could have made all the difference. Could have turned a game in which the Rockets, as Candle put it, stood in the middle of the ring and stared their heavyweight opponent straight in their eyes. Those are the plays that will keep him and his staff up at night.
But we’ll leave the film critique to the coaches.
Bottom line is both teams made plays, both teams made mistakes. It did not take the Hardy Boys to deduce what made the difference. Miami had a roster filled with the biggest, fastest, and best players in the nation, with 25 top-250 players from the last three classes alone, according to Rivals.com. Toledo, for as well as it recruits and develops players, had zero.
Nowhere was this more clear than up front, notably on defense, where a Miami line stacked with NFL talent at every position kept Guadagni in a vise of pressure all day, sacking him four times. When your lines are under that kind of strain, you have to play the perfect game while the other guys have a margin of error wider than the Maumee.
“The difference between a top-10 (caliber) program and the rest of the teams are really good defensive lineman,” Candle said, “like 6-5 guys who can move and are 300 pounds, because there aren’t very many of them across the country and they all go to those elite programs and have five stars next to their name.”
If anything, Saturday was a positive, because it began to answer the question that will define the season.
Only the uncertainty at quarterback stood between Toledo and contention for another league title, and Guadagni sure seemed to add clarity.
Where the junior dual threat was skittish early he was calm and confident late, at times making the Turnover Chain-wearing Miami defense — easily the best Toledo will face this year — look like a chain of fools. He completed 13 of 22 passes for 222 yards and gained 77 more on the ground.
In other words, Toledo looked like Toledo, poised to field another league-leading offense and a middle-of-the-road defense.
That’s not such a bad thing.
If you are a Rockets fan, savor the scene Saturday, but don’t sweat the result, the big picture changing little.
“We have lot of reasons to be optimistic we’ll have a really good season,” Candle said.
Time now for Toledo to pick on people its own size.
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