Miami head coach Mark Richt, right, and Toledo head coach Jason Candle shake hands after the Hurricanes beat the Rockets 52-30. ASSOCIATED PRESS
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — As long as the effort is honest, here is the abiding truth: There is no shame in a collection of college kids losing a football game.
You just hope you give yourself a chance.
If ever a three-touchdown loss to a blue-blood program felt like a mislaid opportunity, the University of Toledo’s 52-30 loss to No. 14 Miami on Saturday at Hard Rock Stadium was it.
Think back to midway through the third quarter.
The Rockets were ahead 16-10, consistently moving the ball against one of the fastest and most feared defenses in the land, and driving again.
All through the house, the natives were stirring, the corner section of Toledo fans roaring. The Rockets have regularly beaten power conference teams this millennium — Penn State, Michigan, Arkansas, Minnesota, Purdue, Iowa State, Colorado, Pittsburgh, Kansas — that another one almost felt expected.
And then ...
The bottom fell out of the bottom.
Before you could take another labored breath in this real-life humidor, ballgame.
In a whiplashed 10-minute span, the Hurricanes scored 28 points, and the visitors were left to wonder what could have been — if only they had put a better, sharper cleat forward.
Everything the Rockets could not afford to beat a more talented team? It all happened.
Another wave of mindless penalties. Countless dropped passes. A fateful late turnover. The list went on.
Some of it was unacceptable. Some of it was football. (An overthrown touchdown pass here, an open receiver slipping there.) And some of it was bad luck. (Toledo was denied points after officials failed to review what appeared an early Cody Thompson touchdown.)
But it all conspired to leave Toledo feeling it left something big on the table.
“Definitely a missed opportunity,” linebacker Ja’Wuan Woodley said.
Now, this is not to bury Toledo.
To label the day a missed opportunity is to reinforce our belief in this Rockets team. If their dreams of crashing a major bowl game are done, nothing changes about the program’s foremost goal. Toledo remains the favorite to capture the Mid-American Conference title, with Saturday only reinforcing that.
In many ways, the Rockets — at least offensively — showed more in defeat than in their first three victories.
For the better part of three quarters, they were in control against a top-15 program that brings in top-15 annual recruiting classes and surely has 15 backups who could be stars at the Glass Bowl.
The Rockets’ passing game was so prolific early that Miami-based ESPN personality Dan Le Batard tweeted Toledo quarterback Logan Woodside “is better than anyone Miami has had at the position in 15 years.”
And their comeback? Impressive. A stunned Toledo team that could have started gassing up the charter plane when it fell behind 38-16 instead pulled back within a score with 7:37 remaining.
“The fight in our football team,” coach Jason Candle said, “I don't know if the score indicated how well they did in that area.”
And yet, man, we still wonder wonder what could have been.
What might have been if, a week after showing less discipline than Homer Simpson at an all-you-can-eat buffet (15 penalties), the Rockets — the nation’s most penalized team — had not been called for four false starts and two delay of games among their eight first-half flags? If the Rockets had not left so many points in a first half it dominated — 296 yards to 190 — but only featured a touchdown and three field goals? If they made just one more big play at a decisive moment in the second half?
Their first drive after intermission told the story.
After stopping Miami, the Rockets were ahead by six and driving in Hurricanes territory, looking to drain any remaining life from the stadium. Next thing you knew, an open receiver slipped on second down, Toledo was stuffed on 3rd-and-3 and, just like that, the race was on.
It didn’t feel crazy to suggest one momentum-turning play might have made all the difference.
“I don't think it's crazy to say,” Candle said. “I think there are four or five plays in every football game that both sides would love to have back. That’s why we play the greatest game there is because there are momentum swings, there’s adversity, and you’ve got to keep fighting. You’ve got to keep swinging.”
The Rockets kept swinging, all right. You just would have liked to see them give Goliath their best punch.