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October 21, 2014

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In the end, it’s defense

Toledo stuffs UNR in Division I-A’s first overtime game

In a game that saw 77 points scored, defense was the deciding factor in Toledo’s triumph in Las Vegas Bowl IV.

The Rockets were barely hanging on against a Nevada-Reno offensive onslaught in the fourth quarter Thursday night at Sam Boyd Stadium. But three key stops kept the Wolf Pack out of the end zone, denying the Big West Conference a three-peat against the Mid-American Conference and giving Toledo a historic 40-37 win in Division I-A’s first overtime game.

"Our defense bailed us out," said Toledo coach Gary Pinkel, whose 25th-ranked team finished 11-0-1 with the bowl triumph. "We were really sputtering offensively in that fourth quarter and we got some big plays from the defense."

UNR, which finished 9-3, had several golden opportunities to win it in regulation, as well as in OT. But the Rockets rose to the occasion, making several big plays until the offense could re-assert itself in OT.

With 10:58 remaining and Toledo hanging on to a 34-31 lead, the Wolf Pack had a 1st-and-goal at the Toledo 4 after Wasean Tait committed his lone miscue in a spectacular 185-yard, four touchdown effort.

But with their backs against the white-painted end zone, the Rockets stiffened and forced UNR to settle for a game-tying field goal.

Then, after an exchange of punts, UNR had the ball at its own 37 with 3:26 to go. But instead of maintaining the up-tempo play-calling which helped the Wolf Pack erase a 21-14 halftime deficit, coach Christ Ault.

Ault kept the ball on the ground and could only shake his head as the Mike Maxwell-led offense trotted off the field three-and-out and having taken only 1:29 off the clock.

Ault seemingly tried burning the candle at both ends, hoping to run out the clock and scoring, only to be burned himself. But the UNR defense held and eventually forced overtime.

Toledo won the coin toss, but elected to go on defense. The Rockets would get their chance to move the ball once UNR completed its series from the 25. And when Maxwell connected with Cornel West on a rollout down the right side to the Toledo 5, it appeared it would take a UT touchdown just to say even.

However, Toledo keyed on backup QB Eric Bennett, who had come in for Maxwell and is a better runner. UNR tried to run it in twice, only to be denied each time.

Maxwell returned, looked for Damond Wilkins in the end zone, threw, and could only watch as Toledo free safety Mark Herron made the play of the game by closing on the ball and getting a piece of it before Wilkins could haul it in.

"I was in my zone where I was supposed to be," Herron said. "I had a good look at it so I wanted to make sure I got my hand on it."

UNR had to settle for another Damon Shea field goal. And now it was Tait’s turn for redemption.

He had already terrorized the Wolf Pack with three touchdowns. Never mind UNR’s defense had been geared to stop him from the opening play. Each of the 11,127 fans who showed up knew who was getting the ball.

"I think coaches had enough confidence in me to give me the ball," Tait said. "We knew no matter how many points they scored, we knew we would stay with them."

It took Toledo four plays to seal the win, with Tait touching the ball on three of them, the last a two-yard plunge off right guard. He barely remembers scoring as his jubilant teammates piled on top of him to where he lost his breath and blacked out momentarily.

But the memories of being a bowl champion remain vivid, and Pinkel is grateful his team rallied when it needed to go.

"We were not a very disciplined football team today," he said. "We played hard, but we made a lot of stupid plays. Four turnovers is very uncharacteristic of this football team.

"But this was a total team effort and it’s a credit to our kids that they won."

Ault said the inability of his team to capitalize in the fourth quarter and OT was the difference.

"We’re not a great defensive football team, but we forced four turnovers and we gave the offense chances to score," he said. "We just didn’t take advantage of them and that’s what hurts. We had chances and we didn’t cash in."

Ault said having the ball 1st-and-goal at the 4 and then settling for three points was a setback. Even a gadget play on 3rd-and-goal the had running back Kin Minor throw an option pass backfired as Minor was tackled at the 9.

"Of all the plays, that one sticks in my craw the most," he said. "We thought we could run the ball in and we had put the option pass in for the game. But Toledo read it well and they made a good play on it."

And with Ault denied his first bowl triumph for the second time in four years, he acknowledged Pinkel was the better man.

"Toledo is a fine team," he said.

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