|Chris Fields, right, gets mobbed by his Ohio State teammtes after returning a punt 69 yards for a touchdown in Saturday's 27-22 win over Toledo at Ohio Stadium in Columbus. (The Buckeye Times/Darla Dunkle-Hudnell)|
COLUMBUS — Toledo, known for being giant killers, had the entire crowd at Ohio Stadium shivering in their seats for most of Saturday's showdown with 15th-ranked Ohio State, as the men from northwest Ohio gave the Buckeye fans on hand nightmarish thoughts of another Rockets' knockout of a college football heavyweight.
It took a 69-yard punt return by receiver Chris Fields, a broken up pass on a deep ball by cornerback Dominic Clarke on Toledo's final offensive series of the game, and a lot of help from the officials to prevent the Rockets from claiming another giant's head, as the Buckeyes edged the pesky visitors, 27-22.
Ohio State interim head coach Luke Fickell said after the game Saturday that he knew Toledo would give his Buckeyes all that they could handle coming into the contest.
"We knew it was going to be a challenge," Fickell said. "We're excited about how the guys fought, how they battled, and how they kept their chins up. This team has been through adversity and will continue to be through adversity, but that is how you challenge yourself to get better."
The Rockets took the Buckeyes to the brink of disaster, driving the football all the way down to the Ohio State 16-yard line with just 48 seconds left in the game. The 13-play, 53-yard drive would eventually stall there, though, as a fourth down pass from Toledo sophomore quarterback Terrence Owens — intended for Kenny Stafford — went off the mark, turning the ball over on downs and putting the kibosh on the Rockets' upset bid.
"It was an ugly game," said Ohio State senior linebacker Andrew Sweat. "But we made plays when we had to make them."
Perhaps no play in the game exemplified Sweat's words more than a Buckeyes' broken up pass on the Rockets' final series of the contest.
Facing a first-and-10 at their own 28, Owens dropped back and launched a pass deep down field to a streaking Bernard Reedy, who had a step on the Buckeyes' secondary. However, the speedy sophomore Clarke closed in on Reedy and leaped high in the air at the last moment knocking away the would-be score.
Although the Rockets would convert a few more first downs following the Clarke break-up, it was that play which prevented Toledo from finding paydirt and winning the game.
Clarke, who has replaced suspended starting cornerback Travis Howard during the past two games, received positive words from his head coach following the win.
"If you're going to win, man, you've got to eventually make plays," Fickell said. "And that's one that you've got to hope your guy can make ...
"Dominic did a whale of a job (breaking up the pass). He understands that's what we expect of him. But we sure are proud that obviously he was battling and continued to do that in that situation."
After giving up just 90 total yards and five first downs in last week's 42-0 win over Akron, the Buckeyes defense was unable to deliver an encore performance, surrendering 338 yards and 16 first downs to the Rockets, while getting hit with big plays all throughout the game.
The Rockets, who compiled more total yards than Ohio State in the loss, killed themselves on numerous occasions Saturday, ranging from inopportune field goal kicking to untimely penalties — none more critical than a false start on a fourth down play with less than a minute to go in the first half.
After Rockets' punter Vince Penza boomed a 55-yard punt — which wasn't returned — Toledo would be hit with a false start which forced them to re-kick the ball. This time, the sophomore Fields would make them pay for the mental miscue.
Trailing by one, Fields hauled in the Penza punt at his own 31-yard line, put his foot in the turf and dashed all the way to the end zone, giving the Buckeyes a 21-15 advantage at the break.
"All I seen was a clear lane and a punter," Fields smiled. "Coach always says I can't be tackled by a punter. It ended up being successful. It felt good taking it (for a score)."
Toledo co-starting quarterback Austin Dantin said that the Rockets self-inflicted damage Saturday is what ultimately did them in.
"There is no doubt that we beat ourselves," Dantin said. "We had 12 or 13 penalties, a missed field goal and another missed opportunity on a field goal. It is inexcusable."
Toledo finished with 14 penalties for 102 yards to Ohio State's two for 13.
Toledo would take the lead early in the contest after Kishon Wilcher blocked a Ben Buchanan punt and returned it deep into Buckeyes' territory. The Rockets would score on the ensuing play when Dantin connected with Eric Page for a 6-yard touchdown. Toledo would complete a 2-point conversion to take an early 8-7 lead.
The Rockets' fortune would continue on in the first quarter.
After Drew Basil missed a 47-yard field goal, the Rockets would answer in a huge way on the ensuing offensive series, when Page caught a quick strike from Owens and scampered 66 yards to paydirt for the 15-7 lead.
Page had a sensational game for the Rockets, recording 12 receptions for 145 yards and two scores.
On the offensive end, the Buckeyes struggled to find any real sustaining success against the Rockets' defense.
Fickell decided to go all-in with fifth-year senior quarterback Joe Bauserman during the game — over true freshman Braxton Miller — and the decision nearly went bust for the first-year head coach.
Other than the opening series of the game, where he connected with tight end Jake Stoneburner on a 26-yard touchdown strike, the going was tough for Bauserman and the offense.
The 25-year old signal caller completed just 16 of 30 pass attempts for 189 yards in the struggling win. He led the offense to only three scoring drives on 14 series in the game, had five three-and-outs, and missed on many throws which could have been completed.
Bauserman's shortcomings caused a cascade of boos from the home crowd much throughout the game.
"I really hope they weren't booing Joe, because that's really disrespectful," Stoneburner said. "We didn't play that great, but there wasn't any reason to boo.
The crowd certainly wasn't booing Stoneburner, who caught four passes in the win for 43 yards and his fourth touchdown of the young season.
"It was kind of crazy," Stoneburner smiled. "After I caught that (touchdown) I thought, 'man, this is nuts.' But it was early in the game, we still had a lot of work to do, so I couldn't focus on it too much."
The fact was, the crowd was booing Fickell for not inserting the freshman phenom Miller at quarterback like he did in the season opener.
The coach said he had planned to put Miller in the game at some point Saturday, but certain things didn't align itself for the young star to make an appearance.
"We were going to use him," Fickell said. "We had a plan maybe to be in that second quarter, very similar to last week, but it just didn't work out the way we had probably planned it in our head."
Fickell insists, though, the Buckeyes are still a two-quarterback team.
"I feel we have two quarterbacks," Fickell said. "I've got confidence in both of them. (Miller) just hasn't had as many opportunities yet ...
"Those guys are good with it. It's about the whole team. Sometimes your plan adjusts and changes on the run, and that's what happened today."
TOUGH GOING ON THE GROUND ... Other than a 36-yard touchdown run by sophomore tailback Carlos Hyde in the second quarter, the Buckeyes were unable to muster much on the ground, compiling just 112 yards on 34 carries (3.3 avg.).
Take away the Hyde scoring jaunt and the Buckeyes averaged only 2.3 yards per carry in the win. Hyde finished with 76 yards on 20 carries, while red-shirt freshman Rod Smith added 24 on seven totes.
After the game, Fickell said Hyde will continue as the team's starting tailback, even if the suspended Jordan Hall returns this week at Miami, Fla.