The Miami OH RedHawks finished the 2016 regular season with six-consecutive victories but were unable to build on their success in Huntington.
In close Week 1 action, the Thundering Herd emerged victorious at home, defeating Chuck Martin's program 31-26. The potential rebound of Doc Holliday's Marshall program was an interesting storyline heading into this game. The teams seemed evenly matched, but the Thundering Herd held home field advantage at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. Here are several takeaways from Marshall's five-point victory on Saturday:
Miami's kick coverage hurt
The RedHawks spent the entire off-season with the sour taste in their mouths after kicking woes cost the team a bowl victory over Mississippi State. A little over eight months later, the special teams unit crushes Miami's chances once again.
Just 12 seconds into their season, the RedHawks trailed Marshall 7-0 after allowing junior running back Keion Davis to return the opening kickoff 99 yards for a score. He had not played since October 29 last season, but Davis played as large of a role as any player on the Marshall offense on Saturday. Late in the second quarter, Davis worked his magic again and returned Miami's kickoff 97 yards for his second touchdown in just one half. The Marshall running back opens 2017 as the most accomplished return specialist of the young season, ultimately leading his Thundering Herd to victory as a result of his touchdowns.
Miami's defense effectively suppressed the offense throughout the game. Marshall only managed to total 267 yards (208 through the air). If it weren't for yielding 196 kick return yards to Davis, the RedHawks may be celebrating a 1-0 record on their trip back to Oxford.
Ragland started rusty, but showed signs of recovery
Miami only averaged 22.8 points per game in 2016, finishing 114th in the nation despite achieving bowl eligibility. The RedHawks offense improved under quarterback Gus Ragland, but Saturday was one of Ragland's rougher performances in the accuracy department. He barely eclipsed the 50% completion mark, finishing 23-of-44, throwing 298 yards and two touchdowns. But one costly interception changed the course of the game. Marshall extended its lead to 28-13 in the late third quarter when benefitting off of a pick-six. Ragland's throw ended up in the hands of Marshall's Chris Jackson, who sprinted the ball 72 yards to earn the Thundering Herd's largest lead of the evening.
Ragland threw 20 touchdowns before finishing his 2016 campaign with a lone interception. His accuracy stood at 64.9% entering Saturday's duel with Marshall. He returned to form on two long scoring drives in the comeback effort, completing an array of screen passes and frequently hooking up with his tight end Ryan Smith to progress downfield.
Ragland's final pass of the game was a desperation Hail Mary but slightly over the 41-yard bomb.
Place Ryan Smith on your All-MAC watch list
With many college football teams transitioning to spread offenses, the tight end position is often eliminated from offenses — but not Chuck Martin's.
Senior tight end Ryan Smith, who had a fantastic outing in the St. Petersburg Bowl, started 2017 with a statement. The 6-foot-4-inch, 265-pound athlete functions as a strong-armed pass catcher for Ragland and the RedHawks' offense. Smith finished Saturday with seven receptions, 98 yards, and two touchdowns. Wide receiver James Gardner finished with the most yards and receptions, but Smith will likely serve as Ragland's second option in the passing game. He was one of Miami's top players in the five-point loss, and definitely ranks among the conference's best tight ends.
Marshall's offense did not contribute much
The former MAC member has been best known for impressive offensives displays in recent history. The 2014 Marshall team, led by Rakeem Cato, finished third in scoring offense and second in total yards. Three years later, Doc Holliday's offense struggled in a game where his team managed to score 31 points. Three touchdowns occurred on defense and special teams, but quarterback Chase Litton struggled moving the offense down the field in Huntington. He finished with 208 yards on 20-of-30 passing but the rushing game only contributed 59 yards on 24 attempts.
Keion Davis, the star of the game, only earned two rushing attempts good for five yards. The Herd instead favored Trey Rodriguez in the rushing game (18 carries, 54 yards).
Marshall only held possession for only 40.44% of the game clock, punted four times, turned the ball over twice, and missed one fourth down conversion. Miami gained 161% of the yardage the Thundering Herd tallied and proved statistically superior on both third and fourth down conversion rates. Three long touchdowns favored Marshall in the contest, allowing the Herd to gain momentum and jump to 1-0 after a disappointing 3-9 season.
Miami should experiment with the two-back system
Miami only handed the football off to its top two running backs a total of 22 times. Juniors Alonzo Smith and Kenny Young combined for 96 yards on those attempts and both halfbacks averaged over four yards per carry. With the passing game not living up to its potential, Miami should have elected to hand the ball off to its capable backs. Ragland led the team in rushing attempts with 15 — only two attempts officially counted as sacks. The RedHawks' running backs could see increased usage next Saturday when they take on Austin Peay of the FCS in Oxford. Saturday was a non-conference learning experiment for the RedHawks, who fell to an evenly-matched Group of Five opponent. Next Saturday is Martin's perfect opportunity to test different play calls and packages in the offense against an Austin Peay team that is 8-72 since 2010, losing 28-straight games.