RedHawks aim for outcome reversal, MAC title
By MIKE SMITH
Even before the opening kickoff of 2023, the Toledo Rockets were generally favored to repeat as MAC champions. Among conference coaches, UT got seven votes to win it all, followed by Ohio (4) and Buffalo (1).
Suffice it to say, Toledo has thusfar lived up to the respect. The Rockets are riding an 11-game winning streak and are currently ranked No. 23 in the latest Associated Press college football poll. They are now hours away from a second consecutive MAC championship . . . IF . . . they can defeat a somewhat surprising opponent.
Instead of a rematch with preseason MAC East favorite Ohio, Toledo will face Miami. The RedHawks were picked to finish second in the East and . . .
. . . received quite a bit of respect from numerous publications. However, Ohio's returning cast, including MVP quarterback Kurtis Rourke, gave OU the preseason nod.
Like UT, Miami put together an outstanding regular season. The RedHawks finished with 10 wins overall and went 7-1 in MAC play. The lone conference loss, however, came at home against Toledo. Moreover, during . . .
. . . that contest, MU lost standout QB Brett Gabbert to a season-ending leg injury. Sophomore Aveon Smith stepped in, managing the RedHawks through four straight wins to finish the campaign.
Perhaps the most impressive of those victories came just one week after MU's loss to Toledo. Miami regrouped and defeated Ohio 30-16 in a critical MAC East showdown. Wins over Akron and Buffalo over the following two weeks nailed down an East crown and guaranteed MU with a spot in the MAC championship. Miami stumbled but pulled out a 17-15 victory at Ball State in its season finale.
This is the second consecutive year that MU finished with Aveon Smith at the helm. Due to Gabbert injuries, the then true freshman was thrown into the breach and helped Miami win three of its last four 2022 contests -- enough to secure bowl eligibility.
Offensively, Miami is a different team with Smith behind center. Gabbert, who was recently named Third Team All-MAC, was one of the league's top passers. Smith's skill set features effective running. However, Head Coach Chuck Martin said the sophomore has improved his game management and passing skills while gaining game experience.
With the hand MU is currently holding, the RedHawks' offense now leans on a running game that includes Smith and sophomore running back Rashad Amos. The latter has averaged 5.1 ypc this year, recording 162 carries for a total of 821 yards with 10 touchdowns (2nd, MAC). Those stats helped him pick up third team All-MAC honors.
While the offense has geared down to some degree, Miami's defense and special teams have been a key to success throughout the year.
Led by MAC Defensive Player of the Year (LB) Matt Salopek and MAC first teamer (DL) Caiden Woullard, the RedHawks topped MAC teams in scoring defense, surendering just 10.8 ppg in league play. Second place Ohio gave up 17.3 ppg. Miami was also first in total defense, second in run defense and second in pass defense (MAC play only).
Four defensive players and three special team members earned all conference honors, with place kicker Graham Nicholson garnering MAC Special Team Player of the Year honors. He was successful on all 23 field goal attempts (long of 52) and 33 of 34 PATs through 12 regular season contests.
Playing to their strengths, the RedHawks ride their defense and special teams for favorable field position. A few turnovers along the way can provide valuable scoring opportunities. Last week's game provides a good example. Linebacker Corgan Hondru picked off a pass and returned it 43 yards. With a Ball State penalty added on, the RedHawks took over at BSU's 20. Although they were unable to move the ball, Nicholson drilled a game-winning 37-yard field goal
As for Toledo, the Rockets have proven strong and stronger. They rank third (all games) in scoring defense (20.4 ppg) and first in scoring offense (35.3 ppg).
Quarterback Dequann Finn earned Vern Smith Leadership Award honors and was a All-MAC First Team member. Running back Peny Boone was tabbed MAC Offensive Player of the Year. Offensive linemen Nolan Potter and Nick Rosi, along with WR Jerjuan Newton were first teamers on the offensive side, while (DL) Judge Culpepper, (LB) Dallas Gant (DBs) Quinyon Mitchell and Maxen Hook also drew first team accolades.
Toledo's only loss of 2023 was in Week One. Illinois kicked a 29-yard field goal with five seconds left for the 30-28 victory. Since then, its been all W's. As for close calls. Ball State (13-6) and arch-rival Bowling Green (32-31) proved particularly tough tests.
The Rockets' 21-17 win at Miami was also a one-score game, although UT held a 21-3 halftime advantage. Finn tossed two TDs and ran for another over the first two quarters. However, MU's defense held Toledo scoreless after that, and the RedHawks tallied two third quarter TDs to pull within four points. Gabbert's gruesome injury occured on second and goal. Although, Miami scored two plays later, the offense stalled after that, crossing midfield (to the UT 47) just once in the fourth quarter.
-- The Rockets are loaded with talent on both sides of the ball. Finn is an experienced quarterback who knows the system and the weapons around him, so he can be expected to manage the offense well -- even in the pressure of a championship game. He was there last year, and the Rockets won.
-- Having seen Miami in regular season play, UT only needs to tweak its approach. The RedHawks have a system, and they generally like to play within that system.
-- Miami has been pretty tough against the run. However, Ball State managed to run for 274 yards (5.2 ypc). QB Kiael Kelly (20 carries, 136 yards) and RB Marquez Cooper (31 carries, 136 yards) put the Cardinals in position for a win despite passing for just 91 yards.
Toledo also has a very dynamic QB/RB combination threat, as well as a talented O-line. Tight end Anthony Torres was a Second Team All-MAC selection and caught a TD against Miami in their first meeting.
-- With Finn also being a very capable passer, and Jujuan Newton earning All-MAC First Team honors, Toledo can keep the RedHawks relatively "honest" in the box. Conversely, Toledo's defense has the secondary talent that could allow it to put some extra "focus" on Miami's run game.
-- The RedHawks have their work cut out for them. They have fought through season-ending injuries to an All-MAC quarterback and talented tight end Jack Coldiron. Other injuries have also taken their toll, but Miami hopes to get explosive wideout Gage Larvadain back for the title game. He was a key to several early RedHawk victories and had seven catches in the first meeting with Toledo.
-- Even if Larvadain is available, he is sure to draw plenty of attention. Other receivers need to step up. Freshman Javon Tracy has done that, recording 11 catches over MU's final two games.
-- MU doesn't pass as much with Gabbert out. When it does, however, avoiding drops will help the offense to maximize aerial efficiency. Passing success would likely help the ground game, as well.
-- Miami's margin for error is smaller these days. The RedHawks can help themselves by avoiding turnovers. Two late interceptions at Ball State led to Cardinal scores.
-- Toledo had the early lead in the first meeting. It would probably help MU if it could reverse the roles. Miami has been pretty successful in protecting second half leads.
-- Newton is a weapon for which all teams prepare. Torres cannot be overlooked. While he doesn't catch a ton of balls, he's a big target who contributes some big gains and had a TD against Miami in the first meeting.
-- Martin called the Ball State win ugly. It's important the RedHawks bounce back from a "clunker" with the kind of effort and performance they put together against Ohio. They were underdogs in that one, too.
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.