The Miami RedHawks (2-3, 1-0 MAC) came into the game seeking to show their brutal non-confernence schedule had sharpened them for the rigors of conference play, and did so in convincing fashion over the Central Michigan Chippewas (2-3, 0-1 MAC) on Saturday afternoon at Yager Stadium, winning by a final score of 28-17.
It was a game full of little scares on both sides, but Miami’s stifling defense limited a CMU offense with great potential throughout, while a heroic performance from backup QB AJ Mayer helped guide Miami through a storm of adversity.
It was a contest which was vital for both teams’ dark horse divisional hopes, and a matchup which had gone Miami’s way the last three times going back to 2016. Miami proved, once again, to be able to get the best of the team dressed in Maroon and Gold, and make a statement that they will be a contender in the MAC East.
Central, meanwhile, will be left to lick their wounds as they let a number of scoring opportunities get away, while allowing Miami to dictate the pace of play on defense.
We dive deeper in to the lessons from the game below:
We start with Miami, the winners of the contest. They won the game in pretty much all three phases, outclassing and out coaching Central from the outset on their home field.
The rushing game is looking healthy
Miami had struggled to get the run going over most of the non-conference season, and that was understandable to a certain extent, considering they played a Top 10 team in Cincinnati, a solid Power 5 team in Minnesota and a burly Army West Point team in three of their four contests. Even that fourth contest vs. LIU was more of a thought experiment, as no ballcarrier got more than nine touches of the ball.
They often found themselves in pass-first situations due to the nature of those games, which made evaluation of talent difficult. Well, safe to say that Miami looks to be coming out of their game vs. CMU with a rushing attack which could be fierce.
Kansas State transfer Keyon Mozee, a true freshman, seems to have been the back who won the trust of the staff over the last month, picking up lead back duties in the absence of Tyre Shelton and Jaylon Bester (who both spent 2020 rehabbing various injuries.) Mozee averages 10 carries per game, and has picked up 80+ yards twice so far, including this week vs. Central.
Shelton and Bester made their debuts this week, touching the field for the first time since the 2019 MAC title game, and if they regain their 2019 form, they should be able to surpass the “okay” 138 rush yards per game average and make up one of the MAC’s best running duos. Add Mozee and his potential development as a spell RB, and Miami could once again make noise in the MAC East.
Miami didn’t miss a beat at QB
Brett Gabbert, a former MAC Freshman of the Year in 2019, went down at halftime of the contest, and CMU briefly came back to scare the RedHawks in the second half, but Miami’s performance didn’t really decline on the offensive side.
Gabbert was clearly ailing with a lingering injury throughout the first half, and did eventually leave after a particularly hard hit from linebacker Kyle Moretti. He finished with a 50 percent completion percentage and two touchdowns, but there’s some concerns to be had there which have been in the air since Week 1. (AJ Mayer’s five game appearances indicate as such.)
If anything, Mayer’s insertion into the game actually helped Miami move the ball down the field. In his 30 minutes of work, Mayer finished 13-of-18 for 179 yards and two touchdowns, with one interception. Were it not for an athletic play by CMU safety Gage Kreski, it may well have been a 3 TD performance.
Whoever is at the controls for Miami football down the line should find success, especially if the run game starts to come into its own. Both QBs showed themselves capable of leading the offense in their own ways, and it’s clear the staff believes they can open the whole playbook with both players.
The defense looks stout once again
Any concerns Miami fans may have had going into the game defensively might have been a bit overblown. The RedHawks defense was a nuisance for what is usually a high-flying CMU offense from the word “go”, limiting CMU to only 17 points and forcing CMU into unfavorable field position throughout the contest. They also held CMU to two three-and-outs and stopped them on their lone fourth down conversion, limiting the Chips to just 4-of-15 on clutch down conversions on the day in total.
If you’re box score skimming, 430 yards of total offense allowed is stressful— until you see that only 58 of those were along the ground, a statistic in which Miami had just given up over 380 yards the week before. Miami dared CMU to run with Lew Nichols and managed to gobble him up at most every opportunity, with Nichols limited to just 24 yards on 12 carries.
Most of those passing yards were stymied as well, with Miami grabbing a commanding lead early and forcing Central to throw the ball downfield. Miami’s pass rush and secondary forced Daniel Richardson into feeling pressure, launching several passes out just to avoid taking sacks. They kept a lot of the action in front of them as well, forcing CMU to settle for three field goals in positive territory, only converting once.
It is this bend-not-break system which vaulted them to MAC title contention in 2019, and it looks to be the blueprint once again for the RedHawks.
As for what we picked up for Central Michigan, not a lot of it was very good in what was an especially confounding performance. Here’s what we observed from their performance:
Offensive game management will come into question for CMU
Daniel Richardson played admirably in his first start as CMU’s new QB, prior to his leaving the game with an injury before the final drive, finishing 22-of-41 for 326 yards and two touchdowns. But Richardson (and eventually Jacob Sirmon) had to be depended upon for most of the day, as the running backs simply couldn’t get anywhere in a hurry, combining for 58 yards as a unit.
Some of it couldn’t be helped due to Miami’s stiff defense, but a lot of CMU’s offensive woes can be linked back to ineffective play calling and game management.
CMU settled for field goals three times on promising drives into the Miami redzone, including their final driver of the game when down 11 points (as opposed to trying to convert fourth-and-one from the Miami 23 to extend the drive with 3:39 remaining.) They ended up missing from 41 yards out. CMU also went for it on fourth down just once, opting for a fourth-and-six attempt from the Miami 38— which resulted in 12-yard sack to give Miami the ball at midfield.
The uncertainty extended to the playcalling as well. With Richardson at the spot, CMU looked for deep, downfield routes seemingly regardless of game situation, while Sirmon entered the game to run an offense centered on ball control via underneath routes. For a team which has stated it wants to end drives with maximum points, the gameplan did everything it could to limit CMU’s true opportunities down the field.
To put it plainly: they played like a team who was scared of the RedHawk defense, and it worked out in Miami’s favor on Saturday.
The secondary must be addressed immediately
Coming into the 2021 season, the secondary was a legitimate concern for the Chippewas. The coaching staff had made mention that it was a point of emphasis in the offseason to address the woes they had in 2020 in coverage, finishing as a bottom 10 unit at the FBS level.
CMU has been a black hole at the corners since the departures of Sean Murphy-Bunting and Xavier Crawford in 2018 (NFL Draft), and Kyron McKinnie-Harper (dismissal) and Montrae Braswell (transfer) in 2019, posing a glaring issue. (Braswell in particular has been excellent at his new stop, becoming a first-team all-Missouri Valley Football Conference DB.) Other names lost in that time include Brandon Brown, Brian Edwards and some other depth pieces entering the transfer portal, Richard Bowens III getting moved to safety as part of a new defensive scheme and Darius Bracy converting full-time to running back.
This has left CMU with two freshmen at the corners as the last line of defense, especially with the long-term injury to Dishon McNary, a JUCO product who is the most experienced member of the unit. It is no coincidence, then, that over the last two weeks, CMU has allowed three receivers (Bryce Singleton, Tyrese Chambers and Mac Hippenhammer) to all receive over 170+ yards of offense, and another receiver to reach 135 yards three weeks ago vs. LSU. One could dismiss this as being just an issue of freshmen learning how to make plays, but it’s a concerning trend which dates back to last season and has now proven to be independent of scheme.
Teams have keyed in that they can attack the outside boundaries in coverage and get explosives through the air, no matter who is lined up at the position. Miami exposed that weakness for four touchdowns on Saturday, while LSU nabbed five, and FIU and Mizzou nabbed two in non-conference play. That is absolutely a weakness for a defense which has proven to be otherwise solid, especially in the run game, allowing only four scores on the ground.
With eight games left in the season, CMU must absolutely address their secondary situation if they have any hope to staying in games. If that means switching from man to zone coverage to aid the younger players, or converting some safeties to corner, then it’s a switch which must be made. Regardless, they cannot stay pat.