BOCA RATON, Fla. — Boca Raton has been good to Jason Candle.
Toledo overcame a 7-3 halftime deficit and then held on in the fourth quarter of Tuesday night's Boca Raton Bowl to defeat reeling Liberty 21-19 at FAU Stadium. It was the first bowl victory for Toledo (9-5) since Candle made his head coaching debut on the same field in 2015.
Playing in a steady rain for most of the night, the Rockets led 21-7 in the fourth quarter but had to hold off a furious comeback by Liberty to end their bowl skid under Candle, who had lost his previous four bowl appearances.
"This is the second time being here at this bowl game," Candle told reporters after the game. "This has been a first-class experience both times. I think one time – to do it once is one thing. But to replicate it, I think, it's really, really difficult."
Liberty (8-5) scored the final two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to make it a 2-point game. Kaidon Salter found Treon Sibley in the end zone for a 29-yard score with 7:24 to play, but Nate Brown missed the extra point attempt. Then Liberty wide receiver CJ Daniels connected with Bentley Hanshaw on a 67-yard strike to fool the Toledo defense, cutting the lead to 21-19. But Liberty's two-point conversion attempt failed and Toledo was able to run out the clock.
"Would have loved to stop them obviously in that four-minute situation and give that ball back to our offense, but that's how it goes," interim head coach Jason Aldridge said. "For all the mistakes we made, we were still a 2-point conversion away from being tied."
Sophomore quarterback Dequan Finn passed for 133 yards and a touchdown and rushed for another score to lead Toledo.
Toledo's first drive ended with a stop on fourth down, giving Liberty favorable field position to set up the first score of the game – a 9-yard touchdown run by Shedro Louis.
Finn was injured late in the first quarter and backup Tucker Gleason led the Rockets down the field in the second half, resulting in a 41-yard field goal by Thomas Cluckey.
Toledo took the lead with a 13-play, 75-yard drive that culminated with a 4-yard touchdown pass from Finn to Lenny Kuhl after halftime.
Then on the next possession, Toledo defensive end Nate Givhan sacked Liberty quarterback Kaidon Salter, who lost the football. Toledo linebacker Jamal Hines recovered the fumble at Liberty's 8-yard line, but the Rockets had to settle for a 30-yard field goal by Cluckey.
Liberty had a chance to regain the lead after Sibley recovered a muffed punt return, but a false start forced the Flames back 10 yards and Brown missed a 32-yard field goal try to the left of the goal posts.
Finn's 1-yard touchdown run and 2-point conversion pass to Jacquez Stuart in the fourth quarter put the Rockets ahead 21-7.
Liberty finished its season on a four-game losing streak. The Flames had never lost a bowl before Tuesday night, winning each of their previous three appearances.
Head coach Hugh Freeze left Liberty after the regular season to take the same position at Auburn, so Aldridge was filling in for the Boca Raton Bowl.
"I know what their head coach is going through here the last few weeks getting that team prepared and ready to play," Candle said, alluding to when he took over for Matt Campbell, now at Iowa State, with less than a month to prepare for his team's 32-17 win against Temple in 2015.
Salter was 12 for 20 for 84 yards and a touchdown for the Flames.
It was a strong finish for the Rockets, who beat Ohio to win their Mid-American Conference under Candle.
"As long as these guys have a great time, that's all I really care about," Candle said. "So this senior class gets to go out, you know, with a bang. You know, last time they put a midnight blue and gold jersey on was a win. They got a MAC championship ring this year. I'm really proud of them and, you know, hopefully we can have a couple more hours here tonight, fly together one last time, and that will be the last time this 2022 Rocket football team will be together."