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Toledo shuts down Ohio in MAC title game 17-7

Bobcats' 54-year championship drought continues

DETROIT – The Mid-American Conference football title drought continues.

Ohio could not catch a break and could not get its offense in gear, falling 17-7 to Toledo in the MAC Championship game Saturday afternoon at Ford Field.

The loss snapped the Bobcats’ seven-game winning streak and extends their consecutive seasons without a MAC championship to 54.

While third-string quarterback CJ Harris came up big in his first career start in a win against Bowling Green last week to get the Bobcats (9-4) to the title game, offense was hard to come by against the Rockets (8-5). Ohio was held to 262 yards.

Toledo quarter Dequan Finn, who has dealt with a couple different injuries that have slowed him late in the season, was named the game’s offensive MVP while the league’s offensive player of the year Kurtis Rourke watched from the sideline after having ACL surgery. Finn ran for 86 yards and threw for 154 more.

"I couldn't be prouder,” said Ohio coach Tim Alban, the MAC’s coach of the year. “Our locker room is obviously very disappointed right now. When you invest as much as this football team has and you keep stacking the days together, you're going to have some pain. I told them to keep their heads up, shoulders back and chest out. This had been my most fun year of coaching, and not because of the seven or eight games we won in a row or the postseason. It's because of the guys you see to my right and everybody in the locker room. They have been remarkable, resilient, battered and bruised, counted out, and they just kept coming back to work every day."

On a couple of occasions, the Bobcats had calls that did not go their way, beginning with the game’s very first possession. Finn completed a 17-yard pass to Jerjuan Newton, who fumbled after being tackled by Tariq Drake. He was ruled down, but it appeared he actually was on top of Drake. The call stood after review.

Three plays later, Jacquez Stuart broke a 29-yard touchdown run to give Toledo a 7-0 lead.

Ohio answered with a long drive in the second quarter in which it overcame a call that went against it. Parker Titsworth was called for a personal foul even after a Toledo player struck at his face twice while he was down on the ground.

On the next play, though, Harris faked an option run and instead dropped back to pass. He found tight end Will Kacmarek wide open for a 32-yard gain to the 5-yard line. Sieh Bangura scored on a 2-yard run originally ruled short of the goal line but then called a touchdown upon replay, tying the score at 7-7 with 6:47 left in the half.

After quick three-and-outs by both teams, Toledo put together a go-ahead scoring drive before halftime. Finn converted a third-and-20 with a pass to Newton, who was able to break a tackle to just reach the line to gain.

Toledo reached the Ohio 30-yard line but was set back by a 7-yard loss on a screen pass and then a false start. Finn, though, was able to scramble in third down for a 16-yard gain that was good enough to set up a 44-yard Thomas Cluckey field goal on the final play of the half to make it 10-7.

The Bobcats stood tough on defense early in the second half to stay in it. Stuart had another long run, this time good for 48 yards, to put the Rockets in the red zone, but they opted to go for it on fourth-and-four from the 10-yard line, and Finn fell down while retreating from the pass rush of Kai Caesar, resulting in a turnover on downs.

Sam Wiglusz gained 30 yards on a wide receiver end-around to get Ohio into Toledo territory on the ensuing possession. The Bobcats, though, went nowhere after that and ended up punting.

Toledo followed with what turned out to be the game-clinching 16-play drive. It included four third-down conversions. One of them came after a second-down play in which Finn appeared to be sacked but instead rolled out of it. Although he was short of a first down, rather than facing third-and-20, they were left with third-and-5.

Ohio challenged the ruling on the field that Finn was not down, but the call was confirmed, and the Bobcats were charged a timeout. Finn converted the first down with a 15-yard pass to DeMeer Blankumsee and then threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to him on a third-and-10 play, making it 17-7 with 10:36 remaining.

Keegan Wilburn’s 35-yard kick return gave the Bobcats good field position on their next possession, and a 21-yard completion to Jacoby Jones moved the ball to the Toledo 37-yard line.

After two Harris incompletions, the Bobcats opted for a run by Bangura, perhaps hoping to set up a better look at a field goal. He was met in the backfield, and instead, a try of 56 yards by Nathanial Vakos was short and wide with 8:15 to go.

The Bobcats got the ball back twice after that but did not threaten to score.

"This team, we've been through a lot this whole year," Finn said. "It's been a rollercoaster for us, with ups and downs. We've fought through adversity and rough patches. Ultimately throughout the whole course, we stayed together as one. Even on the bad days. The whole emphasis was stay together as one, because when we splinter off, we are not the same. When we play as one, no one can stop us. I am happy for this team, happy for the coaches. It's a surreal moment."

Harris, who began the year as the third-string quarterback, showed off his running ability against Bowling Green when he was pressed into action because of Rourke’s injury. Backup Parker Navarro was injured earlier in the year. Harris was limited to 12 yards on six carries against Toledo and completed 17-of-31 passes for 163 yards and a first-half interception on a deep pass attempt.

Bangura, the MAC freshman of the year, also could not get going, finishing with just 56 yards on 20 carries. The Bobcats had only 99 yards rushing. Jones was the leading receiver with three catches for 38 yards.

"Our defense played lights out," Toledo coach Jason Candle said. "Great job by that staff coming up with a game plan and great execution by our players. We made things really tough on their quarterback, who is a good runner. But we executed the game plan at a high level."

Toledo racked up yards on the ground, finishing with 236 of them. Stuart led the way with 93 yards on just nine carries, and with Finn showing off his mobility, Micah Kelly created a three-headed attack by gaining 53 yards on 17 carries.

Newton made six catches for 77 yards.

The Bobcats made 10 tackles for loss, compared to only three for the Rockets, with Bryce Houston responsible for two of them, but they forced no turnovers. Linebacker Keye Thompson left the game early with an injury.

After going 3-9 last season, expectations were low this year, but the Bobcats seemed to have momentum on its side the last half of the season. Nonetheless, Ohio fell to 0-5 in MAC title games, all of them since 2006, and waits to find out its bowl destination.

"This has been about our journey, not the destination," said Albin. "I very boldly said at MAC Media Day that I thought we could make a championship run, and that's what we did."

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