The Miami RedHawks (8-5, 7-2 MAC) were a team who entered Ford Field as underdogs to an underdog; the number of CMU fans to Miami fans was easily 2:1, or even 3:1, and Vegas estimated Miami was a 6.5-point dog after a tough loss to Ball State the week before.
A predicted second-place division finisher, the RedHawks steadily climbed the conference table after a brutal 1-3 start to the season and won games they were expected to lose with a true freshman at quarterback, getting them to a title opportunity in Detroit, Michigan, against a Central Michigan Chippewa team (7-6, 6-3 MAC) looking to cap off a miracle run a season removed from 1-11.
Miami had been laser-focused on proving doubters wrong in the weeks leading up to the game in Detroit, and it showed during the pre-game press conference on Friday evening.
“We have embraced it... But at the same time, we don’t try to look at that. We try to go out there and focus on our opponents,” Martin said. “People want to say who’s the underdog, who’s supposed to win, but, obviously, any given week, any team can win.... If you don’t play to your capability every week, you can get beaten.”
With the odds largely stacked against them, the RedHawks did what they’ve done all season: they rose to the occasion.
Miami set the pace on the very first play of the game, with a long and winding 98-yard kickoff return by Maurice Thomas to set up the RedHawks to score just two plays later on a short Jaylon Bester touchdown run to take the early 7-0 lead. It was a play which took the air out of the stadium in its shocking nature to the mostly maroon-clad crowd, leaving a fraught and nervy silence in its place.
It was a tension which went unresolved until Central Michigan capped off a 14-play, 90-yard drive over 7:40 of gametime with a rousing 21-yard touchdown run on the zone-read look by specialty QB Tommy Lazzaro to even the score at the 11:46 mark of the second quarter.
The turning point of the game came two possessions later, with Central facing a three-and-out situation deep in their own territory. With the score tied at 7 and the Chippewas facing fourth-and-six at their own 19, head coach Jim McElwain called for a direct snap to fullback Oakley Lavallii on a fake punt run, and the play was stuffed for no gain before it had a chance to get going.
“It’s one of those things where they were overloading to our wing against our rugby. We had two punts and had the look that we needed,” McElwain said in his post-game remarks. “As I told the team coming into the game, it wasn’t like we were going to carry anything and not use it. We were going to empty our bags. We had the look. Credit them. They defensed it. The numbers were good.”
The RedHawks set up for the field goal, and took it for a critical 10-7 lead.
After another exchange of punts, CMU led an eight-play drive in just over two minutes to take the lead back before halftime on a strike from Quinten Dormady to Tyrone Scott for a 14-10 lead. The Chippewas sacked Miami backup QB AJ Meyer on a Hail Mary attempt in the next possession to end the half on an emotional high note.
The third quarter was all RedHawks, as they posted hunkered down and limited the Chips to just 18 plays over four series, with all of those drives ending in punts. Miami would score 10 unanswered in the meantime, with a 31-yard pass from Brett Gabbert to Jack Sorenson and a Sam Sloman field goal to reclaim the lead by a score of 20-10 with 11:38 to go in the game.
With an opportunity to cut the deficit to a field goal, Kobe Lewis returned a kickoff for 33 yards to give CMU advantageous position at their own 32. The Chippewas brought out Lazzaro on a second-and-one to fake the run and pass to Tony Poljan for a 24-yard reception to get them inside Miami territory. Dormady came back in to throw towards Kalil Pimpleton, but the reception failed on first down. They were bailed out by a roughing the passer call on defensive end Kameron Butler, granting them a new set of downs at the Miami 27.
It was here, with about 10 minutes to go in the game, a team blinked in what had been an old Western-style staredown to this point.
Dormady looked to the right for an outlet pass towards JaCorey Sullivan, but was met instead by Miami’s Trayvion Banks, who then proceeded to run down the sideline for an apparent pick-six. (It was marked out near the spot of the interception, with a block in the back penalty placing the ball at the Miami 11 instead, but the damage had been done.)
Miami took that turnover and converted it into points after a 10-play, 59-yard drive over 6:01 of possession late in the game. The drive was in danger of getting ended early, but a targeting call on CMU linebacker Troy Brown on a sack of Brett Gabbert deep in RedHawk territory turned the four-yard loss into essentially a 19-yard gain. Instead, the RedHawks continued down the field and Sam Sloman kicked in his third field goal of the day to put Miami up 23-14.
With their backs against the wall, the Chippewas turned in perhaps their best drive of the day, going down the field over nine plays and 2:42, ending in a seven-yard Lazzaro touchdown run to get back into contention 23-21 with 1:24 to go in the game.
The Chippewa crowd came alive at the point, and the roof nearly caved in when Kaden Keon exectured a perfect onside kick and Rollian Sturkey picked up the ball after it rolled 10 yards and scored a touchdown to seemingly give the Chips a 27-23 lead. It was all for naught, as Sturkey was called offsides on the formation.
CMU tried the onside kick again, in the exact same fashion, but once again drew an offsides call. Instead of giving up a bad special teams touchdown, the RedHawks suddenly found themselves with a chance to seal the game at the CMU 30.
They set up the field goal once again, and Sloman delivered, with a 42-yarder which just fell over the crossbar and to the left to put the game at its eventual final score.
CMU would have a chance to score again, with about 30 seconds left. They pushed the ball down the field, and set up for a Hail Mary at their own 45 with six seconds left. Dormady avoided the pass rush and ran towards the sideline, flinging the ball 55 yards downfield in the face of pressure. The ball fluttered towards Tyrone Scott, but was broken up by Steve Weatherford and bounced around for a few moments before falling onto the Ford Field turf.
The championship extends Miami’s MAC Championship number to 16, and it was their first title since their last appearance in 2010.
“It’s awesome. It’s awesome for the kids. It’s awesome for all the people that put in the time,” Miami head coach Chuck Martin said in his post-game remarks. “They put in so much time, our coaches, our trainers, our strength staff. There’s so many people that have really, really tried to help these kids every step of the way so that they could do what they’re capable of doing. It kind of validates we know we’ve been pretty good.”
It was the culmination of a six-year build-up, and many of the players were emotional after the game.
“My feeling, it was just surreal, I didn’t really believe it at first,” defensive linemanDoug Costin said in post-game remarks. “Then after it came to it, it’s everything that me, Jack (Sorenson), (Sam) Sloman, our whole senior class, when we came in... that’s what we wanted to do. We all said to each other, like we want to be the team, the recruiting class that turns Miami around, raise it back to how it was in the old days. And I feel like winning this championship... we left a mark here, and that came here and did what we said we were going to do.”
Central’s locker room was left to ruminate over what-ifs, but head coach Jim McElwain also let it be known he was impressed with the progress the team had made.
“I know one thing, as I told the guys in the locker room, I probably have never been more proud of a group that I’ve been associated with in my coaching career,” McElwain said. “What they have set themselves up to do and what they did short of amazing. Obviously, we didn’t finish it the way we would like to. And yet, at the end of the day, as I told them, let’s all hold our heads up. Let’s be proud to be Chippewas.”
Now, both Miami and Central Michigan await their bowl assignments, to be revealed on Sunday afternoon.