Will underlying issues affect MU vs BSU tilt?
By Mike Smith
It can be difficult to predict how a team will play after it has clinched both bowl eligibility and a spot in the conference champioship game.
The Miami RedHawks are in that position as they close their regular season with a matchup against inter-division rival Ball State. Miami already has nine wins and will meet West champ Toledo Dec. 2 in Detroit for the MAC title.
There was a somewhat similar situation in 2019, but there were also some key differences.
Miami and Ball State also finished that campaign in Muncie, and the new MAC East champion RedHawks led 28-14 at . . .
. . . intermission. However, BSU outscored the visitors 27-0 -- including 21 fourth quarter points -- in the second half for a 41-27 victory.
One worry for a team going to a championship game one week later is injuries. In the 2019 meeting, Miami Head Coach Chuck Martin recently pointed out, his team picked up some injuries at BSU. Further use of those players risked availability the following week. "It was one of the toughest decisions I've ever had to make," he said recently.
The 2023 RedHawks already have some injuries. Quarterback Brett Gabbert and tight end Jack Coldiron, for example, are done for the year. But several other contributors have been on the mend. Gage Larvadain, for example, was Miami's most explosive receiver early in 2023 and recorded seven catches against Toledo. He has been battling injuries, though, and recently missed several games. Martin said the target was for him to return for Week 12 and he has been on track for a return against Ball State. Several other receivers are also among the hobbled.
At some point, the question becomes risk vs. reward: How much can MU afford to use/risk?
In his recent press conference, Martin discussed his team's position. He noted that with another victory, the 2023 RedHawks would join an elite group in MU football history. Only seven Miami squads have reached 10 wins. Four of those came during a stretch from 1973-1977. Since then, its only been done three times.
"It's hard to have a 10-win season, let alone in the MAC where you typically play a tough non-league schedule," Martin observed. "There's a lot of great (Miami) teams that have never accomplished that."
Although Ball State (4-7 overall, 3-4 MAC) cannot reach bowl eligibility, a win would even its MAC record. Moreover, the two teams have a recent history of very competitive encounters. "It's a close game every year that comes down to the wire," Martin said.
Last year's encounter certainly fit that description. Ball State led 14-0 early and 17-3 midway through the third stanza. However, MU rallied for 17 straight points. The last 12 came on an Aveon Smith run for 18 yards and a 34-yard Smith pass to Miles Marshall. The crucial 18-17 MU win secured bowl eligibility for the RedHawks, who subsequently played in the Bahamas Bowl.
Smith will be at quarterback again this year, giving the MU offense a different look from early in the season. With Gabbert, the RedHawks leaned on a productive passing game. Smith's strength is running and game management. The latter, along with his passing, have improved over the past year, according to Martin.
GROWTH AND EXPERIENCE
The 6-1, 210-pound sophomore completed 9 of 16 passes and ran 14 times for a total of 60 yards in last week's MAC East title clinching win over Buffalo.
"I thought A-V was really good. I thought he made great decisions," Martin said. "After the first couple series, he really settled in. He threw the ball well. He ran the ball well. He really managed the game well. He handled everything they threw at him."
Occasionally, as happened in the 2022 MU vs BSU game, the RedHawks win despite some contrary offensive statistics. Ball State outgained Miami 407-347 overall last year, but the RedHawks prevailed on the scoreboard. To Martin, it comes down to playing "winning" football.
"Offensively (with) Brett, we were pretty explosive. We have not been as explosive the last three weeks. That's not anybody's fault," he said, adding "We've played really good football to get to 9-2."
SPECIAL TEAMS AND DEFENSE
The RedHawks 2023 formula has always been heavy on defense and special teams. Both are among the MAC's best, allowing Miami to maximize field position and turnovers. The emergence of running back Rashad Amos has also boosted MU's offense.
The sophomore has averaged 7.1 ypc while running for a total of 363 yards and five touchdowns over his last three games. He's a "big strong runner - really physical - (with) a lot of yards after contact and the speed when he gets on the outside."
Such was the case last week when he broke loose for a 30-yard TD run in the second quarter. "He's still scratching the surface of what he can become," Martin said.
As designated inter-division rivals, the two teams meet every year and are very familiar.
BSU - STINGY DEFENSE, HEAVY RUN OFFENSE
"They've been very stingy on defense," Martin said. "They were 6-6 with Toledo in the fourth quarter." A late Rocket drive allowed UT to pull out a 13-6 win.
Offensively, Martin pointed to a Ball State offense that embraces its run game. Marquez Cooper ranks fifth among MAC runners, averaging 82.5 ypg and 4.6 ypc. "He's dynamic," Martin said. "He torched us a couple years ago in a tough loss (against Kent State).
In Ball State's last game -- a 34-3 win over Kent State -- Cooper carried 25 times for a total of 149 yards with one TD. Kiael Kelly, one of two quarterbacks used by the Cardinals, ran for another 88 yards (and two TDs) on 16 carries.
On the day, BSU ran 52 times for a total of 300 yards and four scores. The Cardinals totaled 17 passes, completing seven for a total of 88 yards.
Defensively, Ball State held Kent State to 97 yards of offense -- 68 passing and 29 rushing. BSU also registered five sacks and 10 TFL.
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.