In the 2019 season, no one expected either Miami or Central Michigan to be the two teams duking it out at Ford Field for the conference title. Yet, they did, with the 7-5 Miami squad pulling off the upset in “neutral” territory to claim their first MAC title since 2010.
The two teams meet for the first time since that fateful day in Detroit, and though the stakes are significantly reduced heading into this game, there is still a lot to play for in one of the more competitive cross-divisional rivalries in the MAC.
- Time and Date: Saturday, October 2, 2021, at 3;30 p.m. Eastern time
- Network: ESPN+ (A valid subscription is required for viewing.)
- Location: Yager Stadium in Oxford, Ohio
- Weather: 76 degrees and cloudy, with chance of precipitation increasing greatly as game progresses; winds at 6 MPH, per Weather.com.
- Spread/Total: Central is favored by 1.5 points, over/under set at 56.5, per DraftKings Sportsbook.
- All-time series: Miami retains the all-time lead at 15-13-1, with a three-game winning streak dating back to 2016.
Getting to know the Miami RedHawks
The RedHawks, who only participated in three games in 2020, are still off to a bit of a rusty start in 2021, going 1-3 in the non-conference season.
They’ve struggled to remain healthy in the offensive skill positions, especially at quarterback and halfback, rotating contributors in-and-out throughout the month of September. Brett Gabbert, 2019 MAC Freshman of the Year, has been battling a handful of injuries all season, resulting in a pitch count situation with backup QB AJ Meyer coming in for spells. Tyre Shelton and Jaylon Bester, the running back duo which helped pace Miami to a MAC title in 2019, aren’t available to Miami due to injury, forcing the RedHawks to try and find younger talent to fill the roles. (Even in their win vs. LIU, no Miami RB had more than nine carries.)
They’ve really paid the price for it, with their offense being one of the worst units in the conference, with an average of 23 points and 343.5 yards per game. They’re especially hurting in the running game which the offense relies upon, only pulling down 132.5 yards per game (ninth in the MAC, 91st in the country.) Keyon Mozee (40 carries, 136 yards, one touchdown) and David Afari (22 carries, 128 yards) have carried the bulk of the responsibility over the last four games.
The passing game has taken a bit to figure out as well, as even when healthy, Brett Gabbert hasn’t really looked like himself, completing only 50 percent of his passes for 565 yards and five touchdowns, with two interceptions. AJ Meyer (20-of-41 for 279 yards, one touchdown, one interception) hasn’t fared much better in relief. Either way, receiver Jack Sorenson is the target man on the offense, with nearly twice the receiving numbers of the second-place man, with 15 receptions for 263 yards and two touchdowns. Penn State transfer Mac Hickenhammer has nine receptions for 148 yards and a score as a complimentary receiver.
Defensively, Miami looks stout so far despite their 1-3 record. Their highlight performance was against Minnesota, preventing the Gophers from getting more than a two-score lead in the second half as the RedHawks tried to come back offensively. The unit is currently fourth in the MAC in total defense (66th overall) with 357.2 yards allowed, while allowing 27.5 points per game.
Miami boasts a deep defensive backfield, with Sterling Weatherford, Mike Brown and Jack Salopek contributing to the sixth-best passing defense in the country, which allows 146 yards through the air per game. (Though, it should be noted that Army did not perform a single pass play in last week’s game.) Linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. paces the defense with 34 total tackles, while defensive end Kameron Butler presents as the team’s leading threat from the line, compiling 24 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss and a sack.
Getting to know the Central Michigan Chippewas
Central Michigan is also a team trying to find proper footing, though for different reasons than Miami.
CMU is still going through an injury bug which traces back to fall camps, when two expected contributors in WR Drayton Law and RB Kobe Lewis both fell to season-ending injuries. Since the season started, backup RB Darius Bracy and starting guard Danny Motowski have also succumbed to long-term injury on offense, while starting corner Dishon McNary and defensive lineman LaQuan Johnson are also in uncertain territory in their recoveries.
That hasn’t stopped CMU from having a handful of decent showings this year, with an especially marquee performance against C-USA foe FIU to close out the non-conference season, and an admirable effort against Mizzou on the road to start the season in what was often-times a frustrating contest.
Miami will face a new-look CMU offense on Saturday, with Daniel Richardson, the 2020 starter, taking the reins back after a three-touchdown performance against FIU in the fourth quarter to complete a 17-point comeback. Richardson replaces Washington transfer Jacob Sirmon, who struggled in his four starts to move the ball efficiently.
Complimenting Richardson will be the running back quartet of Lew Nichols (73 carries, 384 yards, two touchdowns; 14 receptions, 104 yards, one touchdown), Marion Lukes (16 carries, 77 yards), De’Javion Stephney (13 carries, 109 yards) and Myles Bailey (15 carries, 65 yards.) It’s a rushing attack hailing fourth in the conference, with a 176 yard average per game.
CMU uses the threat of the run to establish the play action pass and the read-option pass, boasting three receivers predicated on yards after catch in JaCorey Sullivan, Kalil Pimpleton and Dallas Dixon, who all average over 12 yards per reception. Pimpleton is perhaps the biggest threat, as he can play slot and outside receiver, as well as running back and even Wildcat QB when the situation arises.
Defensively, CMU is one of he best havoc-causing units in the country, especially on third-down, where they’ve allowed conversions just 22.1 percent of the time, good enough for fourth overall at the FBS level.
This is accomplished in no small part thanks to a ferocious defensive line that has collected 38 tackles-for-loss and 11 sacks as a unit. Amir Siddiq leads the way with 12 tackles, including five tackles-for-loss and a sack, with Valdosta State transfer Thomas Incoom producing virtually identical numbers. Defending co-MAC Defensive Player of the Year Troy Hairston II continues to dominate from the end, with four tackles-for-loss and three sacks, while Austin Peay transfer John Wesley Whiteside, LaQuan Johnson and Jacques Bristol contribute to a scary deep line.
The re-vamped 4-2-5 defense places a lot of emphasis on the defensive secondary, which has produced some mixed results.
Linebackers Troy Brown and George Douglas are now meant to occupy run gaps in the middle more, with Brown picking up 20 tackles and two tackles-for-loss in four games. This leaves a lot of the boundary area to the safeties, and they’ve cleaned up shop there, with three of the top five tacklers all being safeties in Gage Kreski (22 tackles), Devonni Reed and Alonzo McCoy (16 tackles apiece) occupying a lot of ground.
The outside corners, however, have been an adventure. Starter Dishon McNary, one of a few non-freshmen at the corner position, was injured during a celebration last week, putting the freshman duo of Donte Kent and DaeDae Hill in one-on-one man coverage. The passing defense leaves a lot to be desired for the Chippewas, who rank 114th in FBS with 276 passing yards allowed on average per game. They gave up two 170+ yard receivers against FIU, and will have a lot of work to do to prove they’ve addressed the situation, which ailed them in 2020 as well.
Miami will be a team which forces you to try and run the ball into the interior by limiting your ability to create big plays down the sideline or over the middle of the field, ensuring that you’re forced to play ball control.
It’s to be determined if the offense will get to their 2019 level of ball control and play action runs that lifted them to success, but perhaps the readjustment to playing MAC peers will be a welcome relief for Miami, as they faced a tough non-conference schedules.
CMU, meanwhile, will look to set the pace on offense early, utilizing their inherent running threat to open up passing lanes for Richardson’s deep arm, and post up as many points as possible, perhaps even taking some risky fourth-down decisions to make it happen. On defense, they will damn the torpedoes to get to the quarterback in the pass game and occupy the lanes in run defense to force third-and-long situations.
This game will be won by the team who gets to their “number” first. If CMU can reach their offensive number, they’ll be in great position; if Miami can get to their time of possession and defensive number, they’ll be in good shape.
Oddsmakers have this game as essentially a coin-toss. I believe CMU can finally snap the three-game losing streak to Miami, but the RedHawks have always been a thorny side to play for CMU, so they won’t go very quietly.