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Rockets’ wait continues with painful loss

11/26/2016, 12:14am EST
By BY DAVID BRIGGS BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

Toledo left wanting for breakthrough win


Western Michigan wide receiver Corey Davis runs with the ball against Toledo during Friday's game. ASSOCIATED PRESS

KALAMAZOO, Mich. — The University of Toledo probably made itself and the Mid-American Conference a lot of money here Friday night.

Except nobody will be laughing to the bank.

Another big November game, another big thud.

With the MAC West title on the line and a chance to nab its biggest win in years, Toledo instead endured one of its most lopsided defeats. The Rockets’ long, confounding wait for so much as a division title continued in a 55-35 loss at 14th-ranked Western Michigan.

Same old Toledo?

We weren’t going to go there, even if the same Rockets team that is 28-2 in conference play in September and October the last seven years fell to 14-12 under the bright lights of November during that same span.

Not against this Western Michigan team.

For all of the armchair analysis sure to come, the truth is the Broncos — reaping the rewards of P.J. Fleck’s three straight top-rated MAC recruiting classes — are just better.

With the notable exception of running back Kareem Hunt (273 total yards) among a few others, unbeaten Western Michigan was deeper, faster, and more talented. Not to mention it was out to impress a wary playoff selection committee.

Beat Ohio in the MAC title game, and chances are the Broncos will be the highest-rated champion from a Group of Five league, thus landing a well-deserved automatic bid to the Cotton Bowl and a major windfall for the conference. The $6 million bowl payout would be divided up among MAC members.

Still, the juggernaut on the other sideline explains only so much.

It isn’t that lost as a touchdown underdog at a full-throated road venue. It’s that when the Rockets needed to play their best game of the season — when they needed their record-setting offense to carry an irregular defense as they did in a 55-53 loss at Brigham Young earlier this year — they delivered anything but.

Star quarterback Logan Woodside threw a pick-six on the first play from scrimmage, and the night only got longer from there, a blur of missed tackles and three turnovers and flat Broncos dominance.

This one hurt.

Toledo badly coveted its biggest MAC win in 12 years, probably much longer given its league championship drought.

The last time the Rockets won the conference title in 2004, few could fully appreciate the feat. Toledo played in five of the first eight league title games between 1997 and 2004, and with the school’s resources and tradition, the good times seemed sure to keep rolling.

Instead, for as many good Rockets teams that teased over the years, 10 schools have qualified for the MAC title game since 2004. Everyone but Eastern Michigan and Toledo.

What is it they say about the company you keep?

That’s not fair, of course. Though the program still needs that breakthrough win, Toledo is on excellent ground under first-year coach Jason Candle, who is 9-3 with a chance to add a 10th victory in bowl season. Most places would give anything to win nine-plus games five of the last six seasons.

“Nobody is going to wake up tomorrow and feel sorry for Toledo,” he said. “We’re not either.”

Even if the pain is very real.

Here in Kalamazoo, where College GameDay visited last week and the sign in front of the nearby Bottom’s Up liquor store implored cheerful citizens to “act sober” with ESPN in town, the party rocked on.

Back in Toledo, the long wait continued.

Contact David Briggs at: dbriggs@theblade.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.

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