RedHawks remain underdogs against rival Bearcats
By MIKE SMITH
While some of the faces have changed, Miami Head Coach Chuck Martin knows his RedHawks will still be facing a top-tier opponent when MU meets area rival Cincinnati Saturday at Paycor Stadium.
Cincinnati has won the "Battle for the Victory Bell" 15 straight years now and is in a position to pull on top in the longest lasting collegiate football series west of the Allegheny Mountains. The series currently stands at 59-59-7.
Both teams are 1-1, losing to strong . . .
. . . opponents in Week One and posting comfortable victories last week. However, the RedHawks will be heavy underdogs against a Bearcat team that has reloaded after last year's undefeated regular season and a College Football Playoff semifinal appearance. Several UC players went to NFL rosters, head coach Luke Fickle has replaced them and other losses -- with another batch of solid performers. Among them is quarterback Ben Bryant.
Before starting at Eastern Michigan last year, Bryant was a backup at Cincinnati. Now, he is back with the Bearcats. Such is the college game under new transfer portal rules. "He's very capable. He's very accurate," Martin said. "He's played very well the first two weeks (and) he absolutely knows their system."
Thusfar, Bryant has completed 68.3% of his passes, good for 526 yards with five TDs and one early interception in the 31-24 loss at No. 19 Arkansas.
Another transfer, this one from the RedHawks own ranks, is a key member of the UC defense. Ivan Pace was played two years at Miami and earned All-MAC honors before joining his brother (Deshawn Pac) at Cincinnati. Ivan currently leads the Bearcats with 23 tackles and also has a forced fumble to his credit.
Pace is from the area, previously starring at Colerain High School. According to Martin, Miami got the linebacker when Cincinnati didn't offer. "I knew he could play at any level of football," Martin said. "I thought he could have played at Ohio State."
Of course, Martin continued, there's plenty more talent on both sides of the ball.
"Defensively, they're really fast. ... They move a ton up front and they close space to the football, he said. "A year ago, they played man coverage and just locked everybody down. That's what they like to do, and then (they) load the box and get after the quarterback."
Such is a challenge for any quarterback, but after a Week One injury to junior Brett Gabbert, the RedHawks have turned to freshman Aveon Smith. He got his first start last Saturday against FCS-foe Robert Morris and tossed three touchdown passes while completing 14-of-22 pass attempts (155 yards, 1 interception).
"We had a good plan ... and he did his part," Martin said. "I thought A-V looked really comfortable and confident out there and executed what we were tring to do."
While acknowledging the interception was a "bad throw," Martin noted it was a physical mistake and Smith actually made a good read and check on the play. "He made really good decisions."
Cincinnati's size, speed and pure talent, however, will be a bigger challenge. "It's a totally different animal," Martin said. They "just overwhelmed us on both sides of the ball (last year)."
It would help if MU could get its run game going. The RedHawks produced 216 yards and a TD on the ground last week, but Martin said run success was "inconsistent."
If the RedHawks are able to move the ball through the air, chances are senior Mac Hippenhammer will be involved. He leads the team with 11 catches (12.5 ypc) and caught two TDs last week. He was also a key target during Miami's early success at Kentucky in Week One.
Defensively, MU has done a good job against the run despite significant player losses up front. Contributing to that - and the defense in general -- is linebacker Ryan McWood. The sixth year senior leads Miami with 18 tackles.
"He was all over the field (Saturday) and then he had the huge interception to set up a short field," Martin said. "He means even more because of his presence, his leadership, his knowledge and his communication."
At the other end of the experience spectrum is Miami's secondary. The unit was baptized by a strong Kentucky passing game in Week One and performed well after giving up an early big play Saturday. With Bryant at QB and an array of weapons available, the Bearcats will test all quadrants. UC had 293 yards with three touchdowns through the air against Kennesaw State last Saturday.
They added another 232 rushing yards while averaging 7.7 ypc. in the 63-10 victory. Cincinnati's final scores were runs of 44- and 76 yards. Earlier, the defense contributed two TDs with an interception and fumble return.
According to Martin, Cincinnati's wealth of talent extends to special teams. "When you have great athletes, you should be dominant on special teams, and they are."
After a couple Miami special teams hiccups over the past two weeks, it will not be an area that is going to be overlooked in preparations.
>> Luke Bolden's 17-yard pass reception last week was the first touchdown of his career. He played the previous three seasons at linebacker.
>> The transfer portal has changed college football, and Miami is no different. Kameron Butler (Virginia), Lonnie Phelps (Kansas) and Ivan Pace (Cincinnati) combined for 208 tackles and 21.5 sacks last season, but are now at other schools. The RedHawks brought in a handful of new talent of their own. In all, 13 transfers joined Miami for the 2022 season: Matt Bjorson (Indiana), John Brekke (Holy Cross), Jalen Brunson (Virginia Tech), Michael Dowell (Michigan State), Nolan Johnson (ECU), Trey LaBounty (Stanford), Myles Marshall (Indiana), Yahsyn McKee (Mercer), Jalen Peterson (Indianapolis), Zane Reis (Ohio Wesleyan), Corey Suttle (Iowa State), Brian Ugwu (Rutgers) and Ty Wise (Indiana).
>> Linebacker Ryan McWood (turns 25 on Oct. 13) is in his seventh season with the Red and White. Due to red-shirting the 2016 season, a 2020 COVID year and then a season-ending injury in week one of the 2021 season, McWood is just a handful of college football players playing in their seventh (or eighth) year. The good news of hanging around so long, Ryan’s brother Oscar McWood, is now a member of the RedHawks.
>> In his first year with the football program, Graham Nicholson did not disappoint. He finished the season 15-20 on field goals, including 6-of-7 on attempts between 40-49 yards. He added 30 touchbacks on 65 kickoffs in 2021. He is 3-for-4 on field goals in 2022, including a 45-yard field goal last week versus RMU.
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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.