Through the first half of the season UB appeared a few if-onlys from a breakthrough. If only the defense could force some turnovers then things would be different. If only the special teams could contribute then victory would be at hand. If only the offense was healthy.
Apparently there’s more to it than that. A defense maligned for its lack of takeaways produced two Saturday, one of them good for six points. The special teams blocked two extra points – which may have accounted for a third outright miss – and stymied Toledo’s fearsome return game. Key players returned to the offensive side of the ball. Nonetheless, the result was as it’s been for almost a year, with the Bulls falling to the Rockets, 25-20, at rain-soaked, wind-battered UB Stadium.
Toledo left town hoping for its first national ranking since 2001. The Rockets (8-1, 5-0) finished a spot outside the Top 25 last week and certainly won’t be hurt by the loss their Mid-American Conference relative, No. 22 Ohio, suffered at Miami. UB, meanwhile, finished the Murderer’s Row part of their MAC schedule still looking for its first victory over an FBS team since Nov. 19 of last season,
The homecoming of Toledo junior running back David Fluellen (Lockport) turned into his personal showcase. Limited to 50 yards in the first half, Fluellen gouged the Bulls for 140 and two TDs in the third quarter alone en route to a 228-yard performance, his career best by 15 and his fifth straight 100-yard game (two of those 200-plus).
“Their third-quarter effort was really the difference in the game,” said UB coach Jeff Quinn. “Their running back, Fluellen, ran well. . . .. They were hitting some inside zone plays and were finding some cracks and some seams and some creases ... give them credit for getting after us pretty good.”
UB had the wind advantage in the third quarter but found its 14-13 halftime lead transformed into a 25-14 deficit. The Rockets went 73 yards in six plays with the second-half kickoff as Fluellen scored from the 8. They followed that up with a four-play, 86-yard drive consisting of all Fluellen runs. UB called time after he opened with a 17-yard burst only to see him break free for 49 on the very next play.
“We talked at halftime about how to equate the numbers in the box,” said Toledo coach Matt Campbell. “It seemed like early in the game they did a great job of putting an extra hat in the box and with the way the weather conditions were we felt it was important to run the ball and sustain some consistency in the running game.”
UB may have benefitted from the same philosophy. With backup Joe Licata at quarterback, the Bulls drew within 25-20 at 14:48 of the fourth quarter on a 73-yard drive ending with an 8-yard pass to Alex Neutz. The two-point try failed. In two subsequent full series into the wind, the Bulls ran Branden Oliver just three times for 30 yards while Licata went 1 of 6 for minus-2 yards. Oliver, playing for the first time since Sept. 19, had 101 yards on 24 carries.
“Looking back on it, do I wish we would have ran the ball? Absolutely,” Quinn said. “But you can’t take those plays back and I felt good about where our offense at times was clicking.”
UB broke from its monotonous, exasperating norm in opening a 14-7 halftime advantage. There was Cortney Lester’s interception returned for a touchdown, UB’s first defensive points of the season and just its fourth takeaway. That was followed by Adam Redden’s interception that ended a Toledo’s last drive before intermission at the Buffalo 39. And then there was the 42-yard touchdown pass to running back Devin Campbell, left wide open after he released from the backfield. Before then, UB had only four scoring plays this season of 35 yards or longer.
The defense was outstanding in the half even without Lester’s pick six. Defensive back Naaja Johnson laid a hard hit on star receiver Bernard Reedy late in the first quarter and he wasn’t the same for the rest of the half, dropping two balls right in his hands. Toledo high-powered offense just couldn’t get it going either on the ground or through the air as the defensive line gained the upper hand in the trenches and limited the Rockets to a scant four first downs.
UB’s opening strike came at 7:48 of the first quarter. Terrance Owens targeted Alonzo Russell on the left sideline but the pass was slightly off. Russell got a hand on it, but Lester corralled the deflection and zipped untouched down the sideline. UB entered the game ranked last in the nation with three takeaways.
Toledo struck back with a turnover touchdown of its own with 2:17 remaining in the quarter. Defensive end Hank Keighley jarred the ball from Campbell on the handoff and linebacker Dan Molls retrieved it, dodged Alex Zordich and went 13 yards for the Rockets fifth defensive TD.
The score remained tied at 7 until midway through the second quarter. Campbell wheeled out of the backfield unnoticed. Zordich hit him in stride, and UB had its first offensive touchdown in 9½ quarters, a halftime lead and the momentum. It wasn’t enough.
“We’re not disgusted, we’re not discouraged,” Neutz said. “I mean, it’s tough. It’s emotional. it’s heartbreaking to come that close. There’s so many games where it’s a one-play difference and we could win.”
If only …