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2018 MAC Football Preview: Miami RedHawks at Minnesota Golden Gophers

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Can Miami find a way to rebound against an unbeaten Minnesota squad?

St Petersburg Bowl - Mississippi State v Miami Ohio Photo by Joseph Garnett, Jr. /Getty Images

The start of the 2018 season has not been kind to the Miami RedHawks. After a number of costly errors in all three phases cost them in Week One against the Marshall Thundering Herd, the team followed that up with an abysmal offensive showing against the hated Cincinnati Bearcats. This week will be an even bigger challenge for the ‘Hawks as they hit the road to take on P.J. Fleck and the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Against New Mexico State and Fresno State, Minnesota has been able to run the ball effectively to the tune of 213.5 yards per game. Rodney Smith and Bryce Williams have been splitting carries this season as they have 115+ rushing yards each, with Smith leading the way with 154 yards. Quarterback Zack Annexstad has been steady at the controls of the offense with two touchdowns to no interceptions, while Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman have been the go-to targets with 21 catches and 280 yards between them with Johnson hauling in both touchdowns.

Meanwhile, the defense of the Gophers has been stout as it has held offenses to 62.5 rushing yards per game and 8/31 on third down conversions. Blake Cashman is a big-time playmaker for the unit with 18 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, and a sack. The defense already has four sacks and three picks in two games, so it could be a long day for the RedHawks if they don’t have success running the football.

The special teams for Minnesota are pretty sound as well with Antoine Winfield Jr. scoring on a 76-yard punt return and Emmit Carpenter recording seven touchbacks this season. The coverage units are outstanding as they held opponents to 4.3 yards per punt return and 15.9 yards per kickoff return.

For Miami to win, it has to more productive on the ground in order to maintain some semblance of balance. The team rushed for 87 yards against Marshall and 59 yards against UC, which is part of the reason the team is now 0-2. Kenny Young getting the nod in this week’s game notes might be a way to finally get the ground game going.

This would be a good week to get Gus Ragland going in the short-to-intermediate passing game. Fleck’s defenses historically play a lot of Cover 3, so sustaining drives with shorter timing-based throws would be big for the offense. Minnesota will be keying on James Gardner and Miami will have to find a guy that can be a match-up problem for the defense.

Defensively, the ‘Hawks have been gashed in the running game due in part to playing athletic QBs but Minnesota doesn’t have that threat in Annexstad. Miami actually did a decent job of bottling up a true RB in Michael Warren to the tune of 3.1 yards per carry. If MU can have similar success against Minnesota, it will keep the game closer than most expect. The Gophers’ passing game is good but not great at being efficient, so if Miami can force them to pass early it can create opportunities for the defense to get off the field. The team is going with some youth at DE with redshirt-sophomore Ben Kimpler and redshirt freshman Andrew Sharp expected to start.

Fans should expect a more spirited Miami offense on Saturday despite being two-touchdown underdogs. MU will be the best team that Minnesota has faced so far, so it will be interesting to see how the home team handles that. However, if the youth on the edge of the defense can’t produce this week, it will be an uphill battle for the RedHawks. 38-24 Gophers with Miami doing something to build off of heading into conference play.