RedHawks must regroup for key MAC matchup
By MIKE SMITH
Suffice it to say, there is plenty of anxiety among Miami football fans heading into this week's Battle of the Bricks against Ohio in Athens.
The matchup has been circled on calendars for months, and with the game now just a few days away, RedHawk fans have plenty of cause for concern.
Last Saturday's action did more than pin the 'Hawks with their first Mid-American Conference loss. Miami also lost veteran quarterback Brett Gabbert to a season-ending leg injury. On the very short term, it short-circuited a second-half rally that saw MU score 14 unanswered points. While the defense continued to shutout Toledo in the second half, Miami's offense subsequently gained just 44 yards and could not score again in a 21-17 loss.
One loss against the preseason MAC favorite would not have . . .
. . . tipped the MAC East scales all that much. Both Ohio and Buffalo already have a loss of their own. However, Miami must now face both those programs without Gabbert.
"It is a big deal," Miami Head Coach Chuck Martin said, noting Gabbert was having the kind of success that would have made him one of the top candidates for MAC Player of the Year.
"Even if we had beat Toledo last week, who ever wins this (week's) game is going to have a leg up," he continued, Gabbert "is not going to be there. We've got to find a way to win a big football game against a really good opponent at their place."
Stepping into the starting role is Aveon Smith, who got a baptism by fire last year when Gabbert was injured - twice -- and missed most of 2022. At that time, Smith was a freshman with no game experience. Consequently, he learned about reading defenses and managing his offense on the fly.
Another important difference was Smith's skill set. Gabbert was one of the MAC's premier passers. Smith's strength was running the ball, and he finished the season as MU's top rusher with team highs in attempts (123), yards (553) and touchdowns (6).
As a passer, the freshman completed 108 of 217 attempts (49.8%), totaling 1,299 yards with 11 TDs and five interceptions. He was sacked 23 times.
Prior to this season, Martin had remarked on Smith's improvement as both a game manager and passer. He reiterated that Monday.
"Obviously, he's got some experience from last year, which is huge," Martin said, adding, "He's an improved thrower by a wide margin."
Given the progress/experience, Martin told reporters, "Things won't change much on offense as far as structure and all the stuff we're doing. It's what he's been repping all year."
Of course, he will be guiding MU's offense against the league's top defense. Ohio leads MAC defenses in scoring (13.9 ppg), total offense (260.2 ypg), and rushing (81.4 ypg). The Bobcats are second in pass defense (179.3 ypg) and fourth in pass defense efficiency (113.8).
"They were one of the top defenses in the MAC a year ago, and they've got (almost) everybody back," Martin said, noting linebacker Bryce Houston is one of the MAC's top defenders. He currently ranks third in tackles (10.3 tpg).
To some extent, the Bobcat defense has gained so much attention, some people haven't noticed Ohio's offensive prowess quite as much. However, 2022 MAC Player of the Year Kurtis Rourke is back at quarterback, and he has plenty of playmakers to go with a solid offensive line. Former Ohio State wideout Sam Wiglusz returned for his senior campaign and leads the team in receiving (39 catches, 440 yards, 3 TDs). Running back Sieh Bangura is back after earning MAC Freshman of the Year honors in 2022.
Although Ohio is ranked sixth among MAC teams in scoring (22.5 ppg), Martin noted the Bobcats "play a slower pace and don't have a lot of possessions in a game, so a lot of times their games are a little bit lower scoring.
That offense will still be pitted against a Miami defense that is among the MAC's best. The RedHawks are second (behind Ohio) in scoring defense (19.4 ppg). Although they surrendered three first half TDs to Toledo last week, they also pitched a second half shutout after tightening the coverages and creating more pressure on QB Dequan Finn.
Offensively, the RedHawks were rolling behind Gabbert in the third quarter last week. After the injury, MU didn't move the ball well at all. How much of that owed to a collective shock from the injury is hard to measure.
"It wasn't something you ever want to see in your life," Martin said. "It took a little bit out of all of them. It took a little bit just to regroup."
Asked about Sunday's practice, Martin said the injury wasn't something that could be ignored when coaches/teammates/friends cared so much. "There's no book on what to say," but "what we do is we do it together. That's how we get through tough times - when things happen that really stink."
During Sunday's meeting, Martin was able to pass along that an early report that Gabbert's surgery seemed to go well. "That was some positive news for the group."
It remains to be seen what MU can do with Smith getting a full week of first team reps. Moving into the backup role is Henry Hesson, a 6-2 redshirt sophomore from Plainfield, Indiana. He has seen limited game action at Miami, but threw for 2,572 yards and 31 TDs as a senior at Avon High School.
Quarterback Maddox Kopp, who transferred to Miami from Colorado after the Deion Sanders player purge, was subsequently denied immediate eligibility by the NCAA and is not available. For more on that, click HERE
-- Miami's defense ranks first in the MAC and 15th nationally with 21 sacks this season. A majority of those sacks have come from Miami's edge players. Defensive ends Caiden Woullard (6.0) and Brian Ugwu (4.5) rank first and fifth in the conference, while Ty Wise is ninth (4.0).
-- Placekicker Graham Nicholson has been perfect in 2023, connecting on 14-of-14 field goals and all 25 of his extra points. He is one of seven kickers in the country that has yet to miss a kick this season. In his career, he is 47-of-57 (82.5%) on field goals, including a game-winner last season at Northwestern. He also drilled a career-long 52-yarder in the win over BGSU. Nicholson was named Mid-Season All-America by the Sporting News and the Associated Press placed him on their second team.
-- Linebacker Matt Salopek has 327 career tackles and has surpassed 100 stops in each of the past two years. With 100 tackles (has 79 currently) in 2023 he would become the first Miami player to secure 100-plus tackles in three-straight seasons since Matt Pusateri did the same from 2002-04.
-- Smith was 5-4 as a starter last year, including a win at Northwestern and became the first player in school history to lead a team in both passing and rushing yards.
-- Miami leads the all-time series 54-42-2 against Ohio in the Battle of the Bricks. Ohio has won 26 of the 48 meetings in Athens and 13 of the last 16 games in the series overall. The rival programs have faced off every year since 1945 except for 2020 (COVID). This will be the teams' first meeting on a Saturday since 2016.
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.