Thursday, November 10, 2016

Six degrees of separation: Hunt powers Toledo past NIU

                            Photo Credit: Andrew Mascharka

For six seasons, the Toledo Rockets have been forced to listen to the critics.

For six seasons, the Toledo Rockets played second fiddle to Mid-American Conference West rivals the Northern Illinois Huskies.

On Wednesday night, the proverbial monkey off its back was lifted for Toledo (8-2, 5-1 MAC West) as it overcame an 11-point second half deficit to defeat Northern Illinois (3-7, 3-3 MAC West), 31-24 at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago, IL.

Toledo senior running back Kareem Hunt endured the heartache of being on the wrong side of the last three meetings against NIU and scored the game-winning touchdown from a yard out with 1:15 left in the game. Hunt went over the 100-yard mark for the fifth timer this season (122 yards on 19 carries).

Rockets coach Jason Candle also felt the wrath of being on the wrong end of the NIU rivalry though various staff positions in the last six seasons and felt relieved and happy for seniors, such as Hunt.

"The play to me that sticks out is the third down when [Kareem] stopped around midfield with the ball caught in the flat, breaking a tackle and making a first down," Candle said. "That right there is a sign of a true senior because that guy put his heart and soul on the line for his football team."

“These seniors have heard for four years how they can't beat Northern Illinois. You haven't done it. What are you going to do to do it?' It's just right those guys got to share that moment."

Trailing by 11 on two different occasions, Candle acknowledged the errors made in the first half and knew the margin of error would be slim to overcome the odds.

“We have one or two ways you can go the next 30 minutes and they certainly responded,” Candle said. “It's a team that's really close, they play for each other, selfless group, and they showed it in the second half."

Within triumph, comes tragedy and in Northern Illinois' case— an eight-year FBS bowl streak coming to an end with its seventh loss of the season.

NIU coach Rod Carey gave a thorough perspective on finishing the final two games and playing for next season and beyond.

“I know some of the big picture things are out there but they have done a great job of blocking that out and just going to work and I'm really am proud of them for that,” Carey said. “We are all disappointed with where we're at right now and we're looking to get better."

Even with its biggest obstacle in NIU behind, a potential date with No. 21 Western Michigan looms on Nov. 25 and a high likelihood the MAC West crown will be at stake that day.

Toledo's grind to conquer the MAC could mirror The Golden Road game on The Price Is Right game show.

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Follow Geno Green on Twitter @TheGenoGreen.