If it wasn’t December, you’d probably think that Toledo had found a four-leaf clover in the second half of their Boca Raton Bowl victory over Liberty.
After a rough first half that saw just three points, Toledo entered the locker room trailing 7-3. While they had battled an injury scare with quarterback Dequan Finn, the offense had seemingly found new ways to end drives.
Then, in the third quarter, the Toledo Rockets lifted off, and everything went right.
On the first drive of the half, Finn accounted for 46 yards and got Toledo down to Liberty’s four-yard line. Finn capped it off by connecting with tight end Lenny Kuhl for an easy touchdown pass, giving Toledo a 10-7 lead.
“I point back to the last drive of the second quarter. We got the ball across midfield and it’s really pouring down rain at that point in time. We take a negative yardage play and we punt the ball. That’s not in my DNA,” head coach Jason Candle said.
“Knowing we had the football coming out in the third quarter in the first possession, I knew we had to have a pretty good plan at halftime on how we were going to gain some yards. At least flip the field position, if not get a score.”
As Toledo’s band began to play Killing in the Name of by Rage Against the Machine, their defense began to steal the show.
Just 42 seconds after Toledo’s touchdown, linebacker Nate Givhan knocked the ball out of the hands of Liberty quarterback Kaidon Salter for a fumble. As a scrum formed inside Liberty’s 10-yard line, Toledo defensive lineman Jamal Hines emerged from a sea of bodies with the football.
“Honestly, I did try and get the ball,” Givhan said. “[Toledo co-defensive coordinator] Vince Kehres talked about how the quarterback was bad with the ball. I just went for the ball and it came out.”
Although Toledo couldn’t find the end zone, a 29-yard field goal by kicker Thomas Cluckey indicated a shift in momentum. As quickly as Toledo trailed by four, they held a seven-point lead and a stroke of luck that seemed to multiply.
Even as Toledo muffed a punt at their 10-yard line, that luck continued. Playing the ultimate form of defense, Toledo forced a missed field goal by Liberty to get the ball back.
“We just came together and we said we’re not going to let them score or get a field goal,” Givhan said. “So, our guys on defense, I love those guys. I don’t know what I’d do without those guys. We just wanted it more than they did.”
Toledo followed that up with one of the most methodical drives you’ll see this season. Starting at the 20-yard line, the Rockets ground out a 16-play drive that lasted eight minutes and two quarters. Like the first drive of the half, Finn capped the drive off with a one-yard touchdown run.
While his box score was far from video game-like, Finn’s dual-threat play was the difference for Toledo. Through the air, Finn completed 16-of-24 attempts for 133 yards and a touchdown. He also accounted for 23 yards and another touchdown on the ground.
Finn’s strong performance is as much needed as it is gutsy. In the first half, Finn entered the medical tent after being hit by a few Liberty defenders. Finn returned to the game after missing a drive.
“His maturity and his toughness continue to shine through. That position is the most scrutinized position in sports for a reason,” Candle said of Finn. “I didn’t choose to play quarterback, he did. He knows that the good comes with the bad and vice versa. He got off the mat and continued to fight again. He wanted to be in there with his teammates and that’s kind of been a little bit of a small picture of what he’s been all year for us.”
While it looked like Toledo would run away with this game in the second half, Liberty wasn’t going down without their fair share of drama.
Down 14 points in the fourth quarter, Salter connected with wide receiver Treon Sibley for a 29-yard touchdown to cut into Toledo’s lead. On the ensuing extra point, Liberty fumbled the snap, making it an eight-point Toledo lead.
That missed extra point proved to be the difference. Liberty went deep into their playbook for a trick play following a Toledo punt, choosing to run a double pass. As Salter dropped back, wide receiver CJ Daniels took a few steps back and received the ball. Open down the field was tight end Bentley Hanshaw, who caught the ball and did the rest for a 67-yard touchdown.
Needing a two-point conversion, Salter rolled out and attempted to find a wide receiver near the corner of the endzone. Despite a solid look, strong coverage by Toledo saw the ball fall incomplete.
After a well-executed kill drive that took the final three minutes and 35 seconds off the scoreline, Toledo got into victory formation and knelt the ball a few times to ice the game and maintain a 21-19 victory.
While some might call Toledo lucky, Candle has a different outlook.
“I think the connectedness of our football team and our brotherhood. When the toughest moments happen, the brotherhood of this locker room shines through,” Candle said. “Some would define that as luck, I guess. I define that as tough times and effort. Working in the dark has its chance to come to light, and it came to light tonight.”
This year’s victory is Jason Candle’s second Boca Bowl victory. In 2015, Candle filled in as the interim head coach for Matt Campbell and led Toledo to a 32-17 victory over Temple.
This year’s Boca Bowl is a celebration of his seniors and a 2022 Toledo team that accomplished a MAC Championship and a bowl victory in the same season. While the play on the field is over, the group will have one more moment together – a plane ride back to the cold.
“Let’s hope it lands, first of all,” Candle said of the flight home. “Make sure we’re on the ground and safe back in snowy northwest Ohio, I’m sure. … This is our second time being here at this bowl game. This has been a first-class experience both times. … As long as these guys have a great time, that’s all I really care about. This senior class gets to go out with a bang. Last time they put a midnight blue and gold jersey on, it’s a win.”