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Miami (OH) outlasts Northwestern in 17-14 rock fight to lock up first Big Ten win since 2003

Graham Nicholson’s last-minute 36-yard field goal pushes RedHawks past Wildcats in Evanston.

NCAA Football: Miami (Ohio) at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Miami (OH) hadn’t won a Big Ten game since Ben Roethlisberger delivered 353 passing yards and three touchdowns in a 44-14 annihilation of Northwestern on Sept. 13, 2003. The RedHawks also hadn’t won a non-conference game against an FBS opponent since defeating Army in 2011.

In his first eight years as the program’s head coach, Chuck Martin already checked off boxes such as a bowl victory and a MAC championship. But Saturday, he finally accomplished the aforementioned tasks in Evanston, as Miami (OH) outlasted Northwestern, 17-14. The deciding score was a 36-yard field goal by kicker Graham Nicholson, who was placed on scholarship right before the season commenced.

As suggested by the lack of scoring, defenses and special teams controlled the climate of the game. Miami scored its first points of the night courtesy of field position stemming from a blocked punt, setting up a 12-yard touchdown strike from Aveon Smith to Mac Hippenhammer. But special teams giveth, special teams taketh, as Miami also missed out on three points due to Northwestern blocking a field goal in the third quarter. Nicholson finished 1-of-3, but the kicker sunk the one that mattered most, handing the RedHawks a long-awaited Big Ten victory.

Northwestern also fumbled on two occasions in plus territory, preventing the Wildcats from converting their 364 yards of offense into anything more than 14 points. Wide receiver Malik Washington was the most productive target for either team, but Miami jarred the ball out of the senior receiver’s hands on the 26-yard line to stall a drive in the second quarter. Then, on the penultimate snap of the contest, Jacquez Warren caused Washington to cough the ball up at the 46-yard line to prevent Northwestern from a tying field goal opportunity.

Smith started his third consecutive game at quarterback for Miami, continuing to play in relief of injured All-MAC quarterback Brett Gabbert. He finished 7-of-19 with 62 yards, but his restraint from throwing an interception throughout the contest helped the RedHawks win the time of possession battle while forcing Northwestern to experience average starting field position on its own 26-yard line.

The highlight of Miami’s offense was the rushing attack led by Keyon Mozee. The former Kansas State transfer was the RedHawks’ leading rusher last year, but he still never managed a 100-yard game. That all changed Saturday when Mozee burst for 171 yards on 21 attempts, bolting for a 66-yard scamper in the middle of the fourth quarter to set Smith up for the tying QB sneak. Mozee also contributed gains of 10 and 14 yards on Miami’s final possession to position Nicholson for his winning field goal.

Northwestern’s offense started rather efficient as quarterback Ryan Hilinski completed 12 of his first 14 attempts. However, Miami’s secondary stepped up as the contest progressed, causing the quarterback to connect on just 12 of his final 28 throws — calculating to a 24-of-42 result in the box score. With the passing game averaging 5.8 yards per attempt and the rushing attack managing just 3.5, the RedHawks forced seven Northwestern punts and one turnover on downs in the third quarter.

Defensively, two RedHawks took over with standout performances. Inside linebacker Ryan McWood continued his stellar start to 2022 with his third double-digit tackle game of the season. Of McWood’s 11 takedowns, 10 were categorized as solo tackles, and he also recovered one of Northwestern’s two fumbles. Additionally, safety Eli Blakey made his mark by disrupting four Wildcat passes — a significant reason why Northwestern’s offense finished the contest so inefficiently.

After triumphing over Nebraska in Ireland to kick off the season, Northwestern (1-3, 1-0 Big Ten) dropped its third consecutive contest by one possession — with rampant fumbling serving as a major issue in all three defeats. One week after falling to an FCS opponent, the Wildcats dropped their first game to MAC competition since losing to Akron in 2018. Still, Northwestern recovered with an 8-1 conference record to qualify for the Big Ten Championship Game that season.

Meanwhile, Miami (OH) (2-2, 0-0 MAC) improved to .500 after falling in lopsided contests to Kentucky and Cincinnati. The win ensured the RedHawks their best non-conference showing since 2005. It also extended the MAC’s streak to 16 consecutive seasons with a victory over the Big Ten, excluding the 2020 season due to pandemic-modified schedules. Emerging out of the slugfest at Ryan Field, Miami looks to leverage this rather-unprecedented early season success into MAC play as it faces Buffalo at UB Stadium next Saturday.