Toledo wide receiver Cody Thompson tries to get past Northern Illinois defensive back Daniel Isom after a catch in the first half at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago on Wednesday. UNIVERSITY OF TOLEDO/DANIEL MILLER
CHICAGO — The University of Toledo football team engineered a game-winning fourth-quarter drive and was finally able to solve the Northern Illinois puzzle as the Rockets topped the Huskies 31-24 on Wednesday at Guaranteed Rate Field.
Toledo (8-2, 5-1) picked up its offensive pace in the second half after a slow first half and made timely defensive stops on the way to snapping its six-game losing streak to Northern Illinois (3-7, 3-3). With the win the Rockets kept themselves in the MAC West race, just one game behind unbeaten Western Michigan.
Toledo marched down the field on a nine-play, 71-yard game-winning drive capped off by a one-yard touchdown run by senior Kareem Hunt with 1:15 left in the game. Hunt also broke a tackle and got a first down on a key third-down reception earlier in the drive.
"Pretty much I just wanted to go down and win the game," Hunt said. "I knew I didn't have the first down when I caught it and I knew I needed to get the first down no matter what it took. It was a relief. We all knew we had to go down and score. There was no hesitation or thinking about getting three points or anything like that."
Hunt's final score was set up by a 39-yard pass from Logan Woodside to Jon'Vea Johnson.
RELATED: Rockets learn how to be defensive
"The biggest play of the game was Kareem's third down," Woodside said. "They kind of had him dead to rights there and he made an unbelievable play. After that we had the big play to Jon'Vea to get us down there close to the goal line. It was big for us to go down and punch one in."
Aaron Covington sealed the game for UT by intercepting a pass from NIU quarterback Ryan Graham.
Hunt rushed 19 times for 122 yards, surpassing the 1,000-yard mark for the season. Woodside finished the game 23-of-33 passing for 286 yards and three touchdowns. He found Michael Roberts twice for a score and also hit Johnson for a TD pass. Johnson caught six passes for 129 yards.
NIU backup quarterback Ryan Graham tossed three touchdown passes and racked up 97 yards rushing to lead the Huskies. NIU starting quarterback Anthony Maddie missed the game with an ankle injury.
To open the scoring, Graham hit Shane Wimann on a one-yard TD strike, giving the Huskies a 7-0 lead with 22 seconds left in 1st quarter. Northern Illinois had settled for a field goal but the Rockets were offside on the attempt and gave the Huskies a first down and the chance to score the touchdown.
Toledo got on the board in the second quarter when Jameson Vest connected on a 44-yard field goal to cut the Huskies' lead to 7-3 with 12:06 left.
Northern Illinois answered with a long drive capped off by a Kenny Golladay four-yard TD reception from Graham to give the Huskies a 14-3 lead with 7:41 left in the half.
On the next drive, a Woodside pass was intercepted by Northern Illinois' Shawun Lurry. The Rockets, however, forced a quick three-and-out to limit the damage.
Toledo went into halftime trailing 14-3 and UT coach Jason Candle said he challenged the team in the locker room to come out with better execution.
"In the locker room at halftime, I just reminded our guys that this is a team of fighters and people that don't quit," Candle said. "They certainly responded. It is a team that is a really close team and they play for each other. It's a selfless group and I think that showed in the second half."
The Rockets quickly opened the second-half scoring with a 27-yard TD pass from Woodside to Roberts to cut the Northern Illinois lead to 14-10 with 11:59 left in the third quarter.
Northern Illinois responded with a 14-play, 75-yard drive capped off by a 19-yard TD pass from Graham to Christian Blake, making the score 21-10.
Woodside then connected with Johnson on a 37-yard touchdown pass to cut the NIU lead to 21-17 with 3:23 left in the third quarter.
Toledo took its first lead of the game after taking the opening possession of the fourth quarter for a score. Woodside found Roberts on a 5-yard TD pass to give the Rockets a 24-21 lead.
Christian Hagan kicked a 22-yard field goal for NIU to tie the game 24-24 with 4:31 left, before UT took the ball for its game winning drive.
"Pretty much coming out in the second half, we just had the mindset of sticking together," UT senior safety Connery Swift said. "Just as a unit and as a whole team we wanted to stick together."
The victory was a statement win for Toledo, which finally got the best of Northern Illinois after six straight years of disappointment. For Candle, who has lived the streak as an assistant before this season, said he feels like there is a major weight off his back.
"These seniors have heard for four years how they can't beat Northern Illinois," Candle said. "I'm just really proud that those guys got to share that moment. For me personally I do [feel like a weight is off my back]. Our seniors probably do. But there are a lot of new faces in that locker room too and you're talking about a new coaching staff that this is their first Northern Illinois and Toledo game."
With two games left in the MAC — home against Ball State and at Western Michigan — UT still controls its own destiny in the MAC West and has a MAC championship on its mind.
"It's round 10 of a championship fight and round 11 and 12 are still out there," Candle said. "We have to take care of 11 and put 10 behind us and then we'll go forward to 12."
Contact Brian Buckey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6110.
Toledo wide receiver Corey Jones gives Northern Illinois safety Mycial Allen a stiff-arm during Wednesday night’s game in Chicago. Jones caught four passes for 38 yards. UNIVERSITY OF TOLEDO/DANIEL MILLER