DEKALB, Ill. — Big plays on special teams have the ability to change the course of a game.
The University of Toledo football team knows that first-hand.
Entering Wednesday’s game at Northern Illinois, Toledo led the nation with seven blocked kicks this season, including six punts. Toledo special teams ace Reggie Gilliam himself ad four of those blocked punts. And who can forget Cody Thompson’s viral punt block touchdown in the opener against Virginia Military Institute?
But in a must-win game against the Huskies, the script was flipped on Toledo.
With Northern Illinois clinging to a 10-9 lead late in the first half, Rockets sophomore punter Bailey Flint took the long snap and rolled to the right, hesitating for a few seconds before getting off the rugby-style kick.
It turns out Flint rolled right into Northern Illinois standout defensive end Sutton Smith, who broke through the Rockets’ line and blocked the kick. He then scooped up the loose ball and plowed his way to a 27-yard touchdown return.
Instead of possibly going into halftime down by one, Toledo went to the locker room trailing 17-9. The Rockets never recovered in a 38-15 loss that eliminated them from the Mid-American Conference West Division race.
“Anytime you have a blocked punt, that’s a game-changing play,” Toledo coach Jason Candle said. “Obviously, that was a huge momentum spark for Northern. A young player, Bailey, made a mistake. Hung onto the ball a little too long, and a really good player made a really great play, so hats off to him.”
It turns out the punt block wasn’t by design for the Huskies; Smith free-styled on the field when he saw Flint pause.
“Basically, we were in safe and I wasn’t supposed to do that,” Smith said. “But they waited and really it was just reaction and go. So there really wasn’t much to it, just go out and execute.”
Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey echoed Smith’s sentiments.
“Sutton did a nice job because we actually had it set up for a different punt formation, but he did a nice job reacting, getting the block and getting in for the score,” Carey said.
The UT deficit quickly ballooned to 31-9 after two second-half rushing touchdowns for Northern Illinois quarterback Marcus Childers before both teams added late touchdowns.
The Huskies dominated on the ground with two 100-yard rushers. Tre Harbison gained 139 yards on 21 carries and Marcus Jones churned out 103 yards on 12 carries. Childers added 58 yards, many of those coming in the second half.
With Childers a running threat, Toledo found it difficult to slow a Huskies ground attack that ended up gaining 296 yards.
“Any time you can complement the two good backs they have with a quarterback running game, that’s one more gap you have to continually defend and create discipline,” Candle said. “We knew that, going into the game, as conference games start to progress here, they have started to run him more. He is a good runner, he is adequate with the ball in his hands. He’s not reckless with it. He doesn’t pull the ball just to pull it, and he’s smart when he does it. It’s a tough offense to defend when you have to defend all the gaps.”
Toledo sophomore quarterback Eli Peters filled in for injured starter Mitch Guadagni. Peters was inconsistent, going 26-of-47 for 264 yards and a touchdown. The Rockets squandered some early chances to put points on the board, which came back to haunt them in the end.
“Getting down into the red zone twice and coming away with just three points, it wasn’t deflating, but it’s a major play in the game where you want to get seven and capitalize on those opportunities but we weren’t able to,” Candle said.
Toledo was able to record 431 yards of total offense but gained just 4.8 yards per play. The conference’s best scoring defense in Northern Illinois took away the big play, which has been a calling card for a normally high-scoring offense.
“They limited the big plays pretty well which is something we kind of thrive on,” Thompson said. “We had some inconsistencies and we weren’t able to finish some drives. But they played a hard game tonight and they deserved to win.”
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