BOCA RATON, Fla. (AP) — As he dealt with various injuries throughout the 2022 season, Toledo quarterback Dequan Finn used a message from his coach to stay the course, and eventually, lead his team to a bowl win.
“Do what you say you’re going to do,” Finn said. “And we did what we say we were going to do. I’m thankful for that message and having coach Candle and having the whole team.”
Finn passed for 133 yards and a touchdown and rushed for another score to lead Toledo past Liberty 21-19 in the rainy Boca Raton Bowl Tuesday night.
Toledo came from behind, then fended off Liberty, handing the Flames their first loss in a bowl game after three bowl victories.
Liberty (8-5) was directed by interim coach Josh Aldridge, who stepped in for Hugh Freeze, who became the head coach at Auburn at the end of the regular season.
Toledo (9-5) punctuated a successful season that included winning the Mid-Atlantic Conference title with its first bowl victory since 2015.
“I thought the game tonight kind of mimicked our season in the sense that some ups, some downs,” Toledo coach Jason Candle said, “but at the end of the day finding a way.”
Liberty scored twice in a five-minute span of the fourth quarter, turning a 21-7 deficit into a two-point game. Kaidon Salter hit Treon Sibley with a 29-yard scoring pass at 7:24 of the period to make it 21-13 and CJ Daniels found Bentley Hanshaw with a 67-yard scoring strike to close the game to two points. But, Liberty’s 2-point conversion try failed and Toledo held on for the final 3:40
Finn was just as dangerous offensively as he had been all season, when he led the Mid-American Conference with 30 total TDs.
Finn guided Toledo’s offense 75 yards on the opening drive of the second half to give the Rockets their first lead of the game, 10-7, and they led the rest of the way. Lenny Khule’s 4-yard TD reception capped the drive and was his third TD of the season.
Finn’s 1-yard rushing score in the fourth gave Toledo a 21-7 lead.
“His maturity and his toughness continues to shine through,” Candle said.
Liberty held a 7-3 lead at the half as its defense kept Toledo out of the end zone, even though the Rockets had more first downs, offensive yards and led in time of possession.
Liberty running back Shedro Louis scored the Flames’ first touchdown with a 9-yard rush in the first quarter.
Salter finished 12 for 20 for 84 yards and a TD.
Salter had the game’s first turnover with a sack-fumble on Liberty’s first offensive play of the third quarter. That set up a 29-yeard field goal by Thomas Cluckey that gave the Rockets a 13-7 lead.
“We just made too many mistakes to win,” Aldridge said.
A couple drives later, Toledo’s Adam Beale muffed a punt at rain drenched FAU Stadium, setting up Liberty at the 10 yard line.
Consecutive offensive penalties sent the Flames backward, and kicker Nick Brown, who’d made six straight field goals from inside 50, missed a 32 yarder.
GOING TO THE GROUND
Toledo bullied Liberty in the run game behind Finn’s mobility and running back Jacques Stuart, who had a season-high 23 carries for 111 yards on 4.8 yards per carry.
There were questions entering Tuesday’s game about whether Liberty’s senior defensive end Durrell Johnson would play in the team’s bowl game. He did. And his quickness and ability to generate pressure kept Toledo from scoring more points. Johnson added four tackles for loss to Liberty’s 12 total for the game. The Flames lead the nation in team tackles for loss.
Liberty: Penalties in the second half undid the Flames. After no penalties through the first two quarters, the Flames ended with five flags for 40 yards, most of which stalled their offensive drives.
Toledo: The Rocket’s offense chewed up the clock, especially in the second half with drives of six and seven minutes, and they converted 10 of 17 third downs.
Liberty: The Flames will move to Conference USA in 2023 with a new head coach. Liberty named former Coastal Carolina coach Jamey Caldwell its head coach earlier this month. Liberty will open the 2023 regular season on Sept. 2 at home against Bowling Green.
Toledo: The Rockets will attempt to win their second straight MAC championship next season. Toledo will open the 2023 season on Sept. 2 at Illinois.