Dual-threat Smith leads RedHawks past NIU
By MIKE SMITH
DEKALB, IL -- Freshman Aveon Smith got his seventh start of the season Wednesday, and the Miami RedHawks picked up their fifth win.
With the 29-23 victory over Northern Illinois at Huskie Stadium, the RedHawks kept their bowl eligibility hopes alive. They are now 5-6 with a home game against Ball State left to play. Northern Illinois, the defending MAC champs, fell to 3-8 on the year.
Overall, Miami totaled 356 yards of offense while . . .
. . . surrendering 365 yards. Smith contributed 290 of the RedHawks total and all three touchdowns -- two on the ground and one through the air.
As a passer, the freshman completed 11-of-23 attempts, good for 185 yards and a 47-yard TD toss to Mac Hippenhammer. As a runner, he gave MU another 105 yards and two touchdowns. Smith's versatility also helped the RedHawks improve in several key problem areas during recent games -- third down conversions, rushing and field position.
After a slow start, MU went on to convert 7-of-17 third downs, record 20 first downs and rush for 171 yards. Northern Illinois, meanwhile, failed to covert any of nine third down opportunities. While it did give up a couple big plays, the Miami defense also recorded a safety and came up with a big interception to stop NIU's final drive.
Northern Illinois took the lead with points on its first possession. RB Jaiden Credle set up the score with a 55-yard run on NIU's first play. That put the Huskies in business at Miami's 18, but the RedHawks stiffened and limited the hosts to a field goal.
After forcing a Miami punt, Northern Illinois came back for more. Quarterback Nevan Cremascoli finished a 9-play, 68-yard drive with a 15-yard TD pass to Liam Soraghan.
Now up 10-0, the Huskies forced another MU punt -- the third in three possessions. However, Dom Dzioban's 47-yard punt was downed inside the Huskie five. Two plays later, Miami's defense broke through to hit NIU runner Harrison Waylee in the end zone. The ball came loose, but was kicked out of bounds near the five. By rule, the fumble could not be advanced, so Miami picked up two points on the safety.
Defenses dominated much the first half, but with Dzioban's work, Miami enjoyed some favorable field position that eventually paid off. On the night, he would punt seven times for an average of 42.4 yards in cold and wet conditions. Four of the boots were downed inside the 20. Northern Illinois also kicked seven times, averaging 27.0 yards per kick with none inside the 20.
Miami finally broke through with a touchdown of its own at 4:39 of the second period. Starting at the Huskie 49, MU scored six plays later. Smith ran on four of those plays and threaded his way up the middle for the final 10 yards. With Graham Nicholson's PAT, Miami still trailed, 10-9, but the RedHawks defense would soon set up a go-ahead drive.
First, the MU defense forced a punt after just three Huskie plays. The punt return team then came through with a block that gave Miami the ball at its own 49. Five plays later, Smith ran 15 yards for another TD.
Miami took that 16-10 lead into intermission, but Northern Illinois went back in front just four plays into the third quarter. Cremascoli found Kacper Rutkiewicz behind a busted coverage, and he raced untouched to the end zone for a 53-yard TD. On the night, Cremascoli completed 14-of-22 passes, totaling 165 yards with two TDs and one interception.
Down 17-16, MU reclaimed the lead - this time for good -- with Graham Nicholson's 44-yard field goal midway through the period. When Smith hit Hippenhammer on a 47-yard TD pass with 48 seconds remaining in the third stanza, the RedHawks enjoyed a brief 26-17 edge.
It took Northern Illinois just two plays to answer MU's score. Antario Brown burst through a hole on the left side and bolted 86 yards for the score. The PAT failed, leaving NIU with a three-point deficit.
There was still a full quarter to play, but Miami managed the only points of the final stanza on a 24-yard Nicholson field goal. Northern Illinois was still within six, 29-23, when it started its next possession at 9:02. The Huskies were approaching Miami's red zone when John Saunders Jr. made a diving interception to end the threat.
Given the ball, MU refused to give it up. The RedHawks used nine plays to run out the clock.
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Editor-Publisher Mike Smith
Mike grew up in Mid-American Conference football and basketball territory and returned there after military service. He has been covering MAC football and men's basketball for much of the last several decades.