Homecoming tilt features battle of MAC leaders
By MIKE SMITH
Homecoming games are sometimes one-sided contests. While it's POSSIBLE this week's Miami RedHawks homecoming game in Oxford could go that way, it is more likely to be a real slugfest.
When Miami hosts Toledo Saturday, it will be a matchup of the only two Mid-American Conference teams without a MAC loss. Both teams are 3-0 in league play and both own 6-1 overall records. Both are also coming off hard-earned road wins.
The Rockets are perennial contenders in the West Division and are defending MAC champions. With a strong contigent returning, UT got the MAC head coaches preseason nod to repeat. They have thus far lived up to the hype, albeit two of their three MAC contests were one-score margins.
"They won the league last year (and) they've got everybody back," Miami Head Coach Chuck Martin said. They're an "incredibly experienced team. Their defense is (filled with) six- or seven-year guys, so it's not only good players that are really well-coached, but they've also been in their system for a while. They know what they are doing."
He continued, "Offensively, (they are) talented . . .
. . . everywhere on their offensive line , and all their skill guys are really, really good." They've got a guy at quarterback (Dequan Finn) that can really run and throw and has already put up insane numbers in his career."
Miami, while picked to be a strong MAC East contender along with Ohio, has been a bit of a suprise with its strong start. The last RedHawk team to open a season with a 6-1 mark was the 2003 MU squad led by Ben Roethlisberger in his final collegiate season. That team eventually finished 13-1.
Miami's tough non-conference schedule more often leaves the RedHawks scrambling through their last eight games to reach bowl eligibility, as happened in 2016. That was the last time MU won six straight, and it needed all six after starting 0-6.
Certainly, getting off to a 6-1 start this season has earned plenty of attention. Martin acknowledged his team has also earned some confidence. At the same time, he said, "The reason we won six in a row is because we worked really hard. We've accepted the challenge that that's not going to be easy every week."
"We're happy to be at home. We're happy it's homecoming. We're happy that we've put ourselves in a position to play a really big football game . . . This is what we do this for." -- MU Head Coach Chuck Martin
Indeed, the next two weeks figure to be anything but easy. After hosting Toledo Saturday, the RedHawks must travel to Ohio for a MAC East showdown versus rival Ohio. The Bobcats were upset at Northern Illinois last week, but could hold a valuable head-to-head tiebreaker by beating MU next week.
For what it's worth, the 2023 RedHawks have been pretty good on the road. Miami is the only school in the country with four road wins this season. The RedHawks are 4-1 on the road and 2-0 at home.
ABOUT LAST WEEK
-- Winning on the road is tough enough, but the RedHawks managed to prevail at Western Michigan despite committing the game's only two turnovers. Both -- one interception and one fumble -- came in the second quarter. "We put (our defense) on a short field for the first touchdown. Right after that, we put them on another short field, but (we had) a huge stop. That was probably the biggest stop of the game," Martin said.
-- Previously injured WR Gage Larvadain returned to action against WMU, registering five catches for 49 yards with a long of 16 and two touchdowns.
"We try to get him the ball, because he's a dynamic player," Martin said, noting however, that Larvadain's previous successes mean he often draws double coverage. "It opens up opportunities for other players, and we had some one-on-one matches away from the double team that we took advantage of." Cade McDonald led MU with six receptions totaling 78 yards. Miles Marshall and Joe Wilkins Jr. combined for six catches and 61 yards.
-- Two RedHawks earned MAC East Player of the Week honors. Kicker Graham Nicholson added to his perfect 2023 stats (13 for 13 on FGs; 23 of 23 on PATs) with two field goals and four extra points at WMU. Brett Gabbert, meanwhile, tossed two TDs and ran for two more in Saturday's victory.
Gabbert leads the MAC in passing yards (1,455 yds., 207.0 ypg), passing TDs (14) and pass efficiency (162.9).
Asked about the junior's return to success in 2023, Martin said, "One (it's) him being healthy. He's been pretty good since then. Two, we're a lot better around him. . . We surrounded him (with) kids (who) are playing at a much higher level -- from receivers, to the offensive line, to running backs. . . Our support cast is playing a lot better around him, which is allowing him to have a lot more success..
"He gets better every day. No one out prepares him or no one out works him. I said in January, if we can get 10 guys to play as good as Brett Gabbert around Brett Gabbert, he's going to be really, really good."
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.