QB question tops Miami bowl challenges
Seven weeks ago, the idea of Miami football finishing 2023 with 12 wins might have seemed more like wishful thinking than anything else. Having lost starting QB Brett Gabbert to season-ending injury while losing a home game to Toledo, the RedHawks had more important things on which to focus.
The most important task at that time was to regroup for the very next game -- a critical MAC East matchup at arch-rival Ohio. With sophomore Aveon Smith taking over at quarterback, Miami met that challenge and ran off three more victories before getting another shot at Toledo in the MAC championship game.
Once again, Miami came through with an upset win, avenging the regular season loss to UT and claiming its 17th MAC championship. It was MU's 17th MAC title and second since Chuck Martin took over as head coach.
It was also Miami's 11th win of 2023. The last time MU won 11 games was in 2003 when Ben Roethlisberger led the RedHawks to 13 wins, including a 49-28 victory over Louisville in the GMAC Bowl. Throw in victories over rivals Cincinnati and Ohio with a MAC Championship, and this year's squad has already earned a place in Miami history. Adding a 12th win would be quite the cherry topping.
Getting that win . . .
. . . won't be easy - for a variety of reasons. However, the two biggest are:
-- App State is a quality football program with a history of success.
-- Not only will Miami be without Gabbert, but the RedHawks will also be without Aveon Smith, who started at QB for five consecutive wins after Gabbert went down. Smith entered the transfer portal Dec. 4.
That leaves the question: Just who will start at quarterback for Miami in the bowl game?
According to the newest depth chart, redshirt sophomore Henry Hesson will get the start., with former Colorado QB Maddox Kopp finally available, as well.
Hesson has appeared in three career games, completing two passes for a total of 17 yards. Kopp, who originally signed out of high school with hometown Houston. After transferring to Colorado, the 6-5 sophomore started one game while at for the Buffs, throwing for 123 yards and one touchdown in 2022 action.
Kopp was part of the December 2022 Deion Sanders purge at Colorado and entered the transfer portal. He selected Miami (OH), but the NCAA did not approve him for immediate eligibility. While he was unable to appear in any Miami games, he spent the season with MU's scout team and also had time to at least mentally digest the RedHawks offense. With the regular season over, he is now available.
This is the first meeting between App State and Miami.
Here's more on the two teams:
APPALACHIAN STATE MOUNTAINEERS (8-5 (6-2 Sun Belt)
-- The university is in Boone North Carolina and sits among the Blue Ridge Mountains in the northwestern part of the state. It has an enrollment of just of just over 20,000 students.
-- Known as the Mountaineers, App State sports a yellow and gold color combination. Most of its sports teams play in the Sun Belt Conference.
-- App State football won three straight Diviision I FBS (1-AA) national championships -- 2005, 2006, 2007).
-- The program has been known for historic upsets, including a Sept. 1, 2007 (34-32) win over Michigan in Ann Arbor. Sports Illustrated called it the "Alltime Upset."
-- App State has won its first six bowl appearances after joining the FBS ranks (2014-15). Three of those wins came against Mid-American Conference foes - Ohio and Toledo (twice). Western Kentucky finally ended the string with a 59-38 win over App State in 2021.
-- App State nearly knocked off No. 17 North Carolina in Week Two, falling 40-34 in two overtimes. It did, however, post a big overtime victory Nov. 18 when it knocked off previously undefeated (No. 18) James Madison 26-23 in overtime. That victory was part of a five-game Mountaineer win skein to close out the 2023 regular season.
-- Shawn Clark officially took over as App State’s head coach before the 2019 bowl game and has a 2-1 bowl record. He has led the Mountaineers to a win over a ranked opponent in each of the last three seasons: 30-27 over No. 14 Coastal Carolina in 2021, 17-14 over No. 6 Texas A&M in 2022 and 26-23 (OT) over No. 18 James Madison in 2023.
-- After replacing injured starter Ryan Burger in the first half of the opener, Joey Aguilar threw a 32-yard TD pass on his first FBS play and has 33 TD passes (T-No. 3 among FBS QBs). Only LSU’s Jayden Daniels (40) and Oregon’s Bo Nix (40) have more entering the bowl season than Aguilar, who has set school records for single-season passing TDs and passing yards (3,546).
-- Through their first eight games, the Mountaineers' defense allowed 30.9 ppg -- (unofficially 26.5
points per 60 minutes for which the defense was directly responsible). In the last four games of
the regular season, App State allowed 18.3 points (or 15.3 per 60 minutes vs. the defense).
-- After a 48-38 win vs. Southern Miss, when App State started relying more heavily on its “Star”
defensive package, the Mountaineers were allowing 30.9 points per game (unofficially 26.5
points per 60 minutes for which the defense was directly responsible). In the last four games of
the regular season -- after relying more heavily on its "Star" defensive packag -- App State allowed 18.3 points (or 15.3 per 60 minutes.
-- After the third quarter of the Southern Miss game ended on Oct. 28, App State outscored its opponents 174-80 to close the regular season. The four full games were wins over four bowl-eligible teams.
-- All four App State losses in the 2023 regular season were decided in the closing seconds (by a combined 19 points), and each of the last seven regular-season losses (dating back to 2022) were by seven points or less.
-- Even with the Mountaineers win over James Madison, App State finished a game behind JMU in the East Division. However, the Dukes are still transitioning to FBS and were ineligible for the title. That put App State in the conference championship game, whre they lost to Troy 49-23.
-- Troy jumped out to a 14-0 lead, but the Mountaineers battled back for a 14-all tie early in the third period. Troy outscored App State 35-9 after that.
-- Aguilar completed 28 of 39 passes, good for 275 yards. Ten different players had at least two catches. Kaedin Robinson led the way with six receptions for 70 yards. Robinson led the Sun Belt with 10 TD catches during the regular season, including six in the last four games leading up to the Sun Belt title game
-- Kanye Roberts led Mountaineer runners with 13 carries totaling 53 yards with two TDs.
-- TE Eli Wilson is tied for No. 1 among Sun Belt tight ends with 32 catches while ranking No. 2 with 334 receiving yards and being tied for No. 2 with five touchdown catches.
-- App State's offensive line allowed only 15 sacks during the regular season, while the offense recorded a league-best 34 TD passes entering the bowl season. The line also cleared the way for the league’s third-best rushing attack (171.6-yard average).
-- Named a second-team All-American by the College Football Network, Michael Hughes has made 17 of 20 field goals (with nine straight makes) after going 9 of 12 on FGs in all of 2022. He has made three field goals longer than 45 yards (46, 50 and 54 yards) and totaled 104 points.
-- Milan Tucker, who earned All-America honors as a kick returner in 2022, is averaging 24.0 yards per return this year. He has announced plans to enter the portal but plans to play in the bowl game.
-- The Mountaineers have a solid fan base. The 2023 home win against East Carolina matched the 2022 home opener against North Carolina by drawing a stadium-record 40,168 fans, and every home game since the start of the 2022 season has had an attendance figure exceeding 30,000.
MIAMI REDHAWKS (22-2, 6-2 MAC)
-- The RedHawks are coming off an upset win of 23-14 Toledo in the MAC championship game.
-- Toledo outgained MU 370-306, but Miami's defense forced two turnovers while the offense played turnover-free football. Miami, which led the league in scoring defense during MAC play (10.8 ppg) held the league's top offense (32.8 ppg in MAC play) to 14 points. Miami surrendered just 97 yards rushing to Toledo in the champioship game.
-- Miami's defense was dominant during 2023 MAC play. It ranked first in scoring (10.8), total defense (272.5) and sacks (27). Miami was second in rush defense (114.4) and pass defense (158.1). The RedHawks shutout two MAC opponents this year (BGSU and Akron) and allowed just three points in a win over Kent State. Miami allowed just nine touchdowns in eight MAC games this season.
-- 134 tackles currently rank seventh in
the nation and he has added 8.5 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks and one interception this season. Linebacker Matt Salopek was named MAC Defensive Player of the Year. His 134 tackles currently rank seventh in the nation and he has added 8.5 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks and one interception this season.
-- Miami’s defense ranks first in the MAC and 26th nationally with 34 sacks this season. A majority of those sacks have come from Miami’s edge players. Caiden Woullard (9.5), Brian Ugwu (8.0) and Ty Wise (7.0) all rank in the top-5 in the MAC and are 14th, 41st and 48th nationally.
-- Miami blocked two field goals (Austin Ertl blocked both) in the win over Toledo and have blocked five field goals and an extra points this season.
-- Miami has one of the nation's top special teams unit. Kicker Graham Nicholson was recently named AP First Team All-American and also won the 2023 Lou Groza Award. He set a record for most field goals made in a regular season (23) and hit 25 straight before finishing 26 of 27 on field goals and 35 of 36 on PATs.
-- Punter Alec Bevelhimer is 12th in the nation with a 46.1 average.
-- Cade McDonald is ninth in the nation with a 12.7 punt return average.
-- Miami has allowed 26 punt return yards all season, seventh in the nation.
-- With the loss of Gabbert, the RedHawks have leaned on their run game. Sophomore Rashad Amos ranks fifth in the MAC with 895 yards rushing and is second in the conference with 12 rushing scores. He has rushed for over 100 yards three different times this season and has scored a touchdown in nine of the past 10 games. At 6-2, 234, he has given MU critical yards between the tackles but is also capable of getting around the corners, as well.
-- Smith completed 50 percent of his passes, good for 638 yards with two TDs and two interceptions on the year. His strength was running the ball, and he carried 75 times for 280 yards. His 50-yard run in the championship game set up Miami's clinching touchdown.
-- Gage Larvadain, a transfer from Southeast Louisiana was torching opposing defenses early in the year. However, he missed time with injuries after that and also saw less targets with Gabbert out of the lineup. Despite missing four games, Larvadain ranks 15th in the MAC in catches (38) and is second in yards (643) and touchdowns (6).
-- Cade McDonald, Joe Wilkins Jr. and Kevin Davis also recorded double-figure catches. Wilkins could also miss the bowl game.
-- Head Coach Chuck Martin was named a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award. Martin’s 117 games coached at Miami is tops in program history and his 56 career wins ranks behind only Randy Walker (59).
-- Twelve RedHawks were named All-MAC. Matt Salopek, Caiden Woullard and Graham Nicholson earned first-team honors, while Will Jados, Reid Holskey, Brian Ugwu, Ty Wise, Yahsyn McKee, Alec Bevelhimer and Cade McDonald
(returner) were named second team All-MAC. Brett Gabbert and Rashad Amos were placed on the third team.
-- The RedHawks have now been bowl eligible seven of the last eight seasons.
KEYS TO THE GAME:
The RedHawks have leaned on their defense and special teams especially hard after the loss of Gabbert. With Smith now out of the picture, MU has an even smaller margin for error.
It will be important for the RedHawks to establish a reasonable passing threat -- enough to keep App State from TOTALLY loading the box. Another week of prep might have helped some, but it is what it is, and the RedHawks have an early bowl date. For what it's worth, many of their top players have already posted their intentions to return and will be available.
Defensively, the RedHawks are certainly capable of clogging up a run game, but they can't afford an "off day" such as at Ball State.
With one of the Sun Belt's top quarterbacks, the Mountaineers will be a big test for Miami's secondary. Linebackers, meanwhile, will need to maintain assignments/angles relevant to backs and tight ends.
Suffice it to say, a few sacks along the way would help, as well.
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.