CHICAGO — With the University of Toledo football team seemingly headed toward its seventh straight loss to Northern Illinois, UT coach Jason Candle challenged his team in the locker room at halftime.
“You know at halftime it was just reminding our guys that this is a team of fighters and people who don’t quit,” Candle said. “We have one or two ways you can go in the next 30 minutes and they certainly responded. It’s a team that’s really close and they play for each other. It’s a selfless group and they showed that in the second half.”
Toledo (8-2, 5-1) turned a 14-3 halftime deficit into a 31-24 win that broke a six-game losing skid to the Huskies (3-7, 3-3).
Offensive execution and some timely defensive stops keyed the Rockets’ comeback, which was capped off by a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter.
With just more than four minutes remaining and the game tied 24-24, Toledo engineered a nine-play, 71-yard drive that helped end six straight years of disappointment.
Senior running back Kareem Hunt converted a key third down on the drive when he shed a tackle attempt by an NIU defender after a reception and earned a first down. Junior quarterback Logan Woodside then found sophomore receiver Jon’Vea Johnson on a 39-yard pass, which set up a 1-yard TD plunge by Hunt with 1:15 left in the game.
“I just wanted to win the game,” Hunt said.
“I knew I didn’t have the first down when I caught it and I knew I had to go and get the first down no matter what it took.”
On the next possession, Aaron Covington intercepted a pass by Northern Illinois quarterback Ryan Graham to seal the win for Toledo.
Hunt carried the ball 19 times for 122 yards and a touchdown, while Woodside completed 23 of 33 passes for 286 yards and three touchdowns.
Woodside hit senior tight end Michael Roberts on two TD passes and found Johnson on another.
Johnson had six catches for 129 yards.
“We had some success in the second half running the football and had some good play-action passes and had some good balance,” Candle said.
“In the first half I think we got away from being balanced.
“So we felt like on the last drive if we continued that we could take the clock down and should be able to get ourselves in position to at least kick a field goal.
“It was great execution and a couple third-down conversions on the drive were enormous and we were able to finish it off.”
After a slow start to the game, Woodside threw all three of his touchdowns in the second half. At the half, Woodside was 9-for-15 passing for just 103 yards and an interception.
“I think we just had to keep playing together,” Woodside said.
“We kind of got away from that in the first half. So we had to keep executing what we practiced all week and go out there and perform.”
The Toledo seniors experienced a win over Northern Illinois for the first time, something that was not lost on Candle, who has lived the losing streak as an assistant coach for Toledo before taking over as head coach this season.
“I think the play that sticks out to me is the third down when Kareem is stopped around midfield and he breaks a tackle and gets the first down,” Candle said.
“That right there, I think that’s a sign of a true senior, a guy that has put his heart and soul on the line for the football team.
“These seniors have heard for four years how they can’t beat Northern Illinois. ‘You haven’t done it. What are you going to do to do it?’
“It’s just right that those guys got to share that moment.”
The win helps Toledo remain one game behind Western Michigan in the Mid-American Conference West.
The Rockets face Ball State at home on Wednesday before traveling to Western Michigan for the season finale.
Toledo can earn a trip to the MAC championship game with two wins to close out the season.
“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 runs way from Northern Illinois linebacker Sean Folliard after catching a pass Wednesday night. ASSOCIATED PRESS