TOLEDO — The fairy-tale return nearly went completely awry for Toledo.
The setting was there — a blanket of flakes four inches deep, giving the Toledo players their first chance to play in snow in their lives. The start was there, with the Indians jumping out to a two-possession lead with their first possession of the second half. And the finish was in sight, with Toledo’s Wing-T offense designed to chew the clock.
But it almost didn’t work out that way. Toledo turned the ball over on downs in its own territory, giving Rainier the ball back with just under five minutes left. One play was all it took for the Mountaineers to get to the 1-yard line, and a second punched it in to trim the Indian lead to 16-12 with 4:32 left in the fourth quarter.
“I told them we needed two first downs,” Toledo coach Mike Christensen said. “And that’s exactly what they did. It comes down to them making the plays that we need to, and we had guys that did that.”
Toledo corralled the ensuing onside kick. Trey Rego got two yards on first down. Davin Kinsman got three on second down and four more on third to set up fourth-and-inches, before diving forward through the snow to convert in the clutch.
Two plays later, Jacob Marley raced down the sideline for a gain of 37 yards— by far Toledo’s biggest play of the afternoon — and two kneel down plays later, the Indians had a 16-12 season-opening win.
“Just coming here and playing, it was an awesome experience for the kids,” Christensen said. “This is probably once-in-a-lifetime, to be able to play in the snow. They responded really well, and played their hearts out. I’m really proud of them.”
It was never a sure thing that the game would even happen. Originally scheduled for Saturday, the contest had to be delayed due to the most snowfall the area has seen in years. Sunday night, Christensen called his players out to Ted Hippi Field, where they spent three hours shoveling the sidelines to make the field even close to playable.
When the teams arrived Monday afternoon, they were greeted by a white blanket, with just the sidelines, goal lines, and midfield line cleared out.
“It was fun,” Rego said. “It was something that everybody’s always wished, seeing the Packers and Lions do it as kids, and they’ve always wanted to live that dream.”
Four quarters later, the field was a mushy pit of brown and white, covered in footprints four inches deep.
And it was cold. Neither Rego nor Kinsman — who combined for 44 carries, getting driven into the snow 44 times — wore gloves. The former said that he kept “four handwarmers” in his his back pouch to keep some semblance of feeling in his fingers.
“My toes are extremely cold,” Rego said after the game. “They feel like little snowballs.”
But cold as they may have been, the Toledo runners did enough. Kinsman finished with 66 yards — averaging 2.4 yards per carry, primarily on dives up the middle — and Rego added 62 yards on pitches and counters.
Kinsman scored Toledo’s first touchdown of the day on the Indians’ second possession, diving in from a yard out to cap an 11-play, 50 yard drive, and Rego added the two-point conversion to make it 8-0 midway through the second quarter.
In the second half, it was Rego’s turn to hit pay dirt, running it in from four yards out on second-and-goal.
“They ran hard,” Christensen said. “A lot of it is the guys up front, opening the hole.”
Between the weather and the Toledo offensive style, quarterback Ryan Bloomstrom didn’t get many chances to throw the ball in his debut as the Indians’ starter. He finished 2-for-7 on his attempts with an interception.
For Rainier, Jake Jeske led the way, finishing with 107 yards and both Mountaineer touchdowns on 18 carries and adding 41 receiving yards on three catches. The rest of the Rainier roster combined for just 85 all-purpose yards.
And in the end, with conditions pretty much eliminated the possibility of field goals or extra points. So, part of the difference came down to two-point conversions. The Indians got in on both of theirs, and managed to keep the Mountaineers out twice.
Then, it came down to the Toledo Wing-T offense doing what it does best: running the ball and eating clock.
And 450 days after their last game, in a highly anticipated return that was delayed multiple times, blanketed by snow, and nearly ruined late by a scrappy foe, that’s just what the Indians did.
“It’s kind of hard to judge how everybody played based on today,” Christensen said. “But I know they played hard, and that’s all I can ask for.”