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2023 MAC Football Championship Game Preview: Miami RedHawks

Miami is back in MAC Championship game for the first time since 2019, looking to win their second title under Chuck Martin.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 30 Miami (Ohio) at Kent State Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Miami RedHawks (9-2, 6-1 MAC) earned the MAC East title few weeks back, needing simply to win against Buffalo to secure the necessary head-to-head matchups— and they did just that with a 23-10 victory. Awaiting the RedHawks are the MAC West champion Toledo Rockets.

The RedHawks and Rockets meet for the second time in the MAC Championship game. The two teams met in the first MAC Championship that took place at Ford Field in 2004. Miami would jump out to a 14-7 lead at halftime, but Toledo outscored them 28-13 in the second half to win 35-27.

Miami is back in the MAC Championship game for the first time since 2019, when they defeated Central Michigan 26-21 in front of 22,427 fans, the highest-attended MAC Championship since 2016. The RedHawks are 3-2 in the “modern” MAC Championship game.

How did the RedHawks get here? Let’s take a look:


The Journey

The RedHawks opened the season at Hard Rock Stadium in the return of the Confusion Bowl. Miami only got a field goal before the Hurricanes scored 25 unanswered to win 38-3. The RedHawks then traveled to a rain soaked Amherst to take on former MAC friend UMass. UMass kept it close until Miami pulled away in the fourth quarter to win 41-28.

The next game on the schedule led them to an old friend in the Cincinnati Bearcats in the Battle of the Bell. The new Big 12 institution played catch-up before taking the lead early in the fourth quarter. Graham Nicholson would tie the game on a chip shot field goal to force extra time. Miami scored first in overtime to take the key lead, and then sealed the game on an interception by Yahsyn McKee in the endzone to secure a 31-24 victory. It was a truly historic result, breaking Miami’s 16-game losing streak in the Victory Bell rivalry. Miami then took on Delaware State in their FCS tune-up, dominating the Hornets 62-20.

Syndication: The Enquirer Carter Skaggs/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

Miami would begin MAC play in late September against Kent State first. After the Flashes went up 3-0 early, Miami would rattle off 23 unanswered points to win 23-3, with the defense notching seven sacks on the day. The RedHawks would take on the Bowling Green Falcons next, and the defense had a day, holding the Falcons to zero points and just 135 total yards en route to a 27-0 victory. At Western Michigan, Brett Gabbert accounted for two passing and two rushing touchdowns on the day to pace the RedHawks in a 34-21 win, moving to 6-1 (3-0 MAC) on the season, securing at the very least, a bowl game for their efforts.

The next game would turn out to be a teaser for the MAC Championship, as the RedHawks hosted Toledo. Toledo jumped out to a 21-3 lead at half, but Miami would score to bring it to 21-10. Trying to make a comeback, Brett Gabbert would be stopped short of the end zone, and players immediately motioned for the medical staff. Gabbert, who had suffered what turned out to be a season-ending knee injury, would be attended to on-field for several minutes before being taken off the field in an ambulance. Backup quarterback Aveon Smith took over, and along with running back Rashad Amos, would pull the RedHawks to within four— but the Rockets would prevail 21-17, handing Miami their first MAC loss.

Miami had played most of the 2022 season without Gabbert. He did return to play weeks 8-10 in 2022, but Aveon Smith would finish out the last three games. The main question on the lips of many in MAC circles was how would an Aveon Smith-led Redhawk team would finish considering they hadn’t looked impressive in that situation the year before.

Their first litmus test with Smith under center was their ever-threatening MAC East rival Ohio. The RedHawks stepped up to the task, scoring 30 unanswered points after Ohio took a 9-0 lead in the first quarter to eventually win 30-16 and improve their championship game hopes. Miami then hosted Akron. Despite only having 236 yards of offense, the RedHawks held Akron to 212 yards and zero points, taking a dominant 19-0 victory. Miami’s next opponent was Buffalo for their final MAC East game of the season. After not scoring in the first quarter, Miami and Buffalo would keep it close through the next two periods in a defensive slugfest before Miami broke through, scoring the final ten points to put the game away 23-10. With that win, Miami went undefeated against division opponents, and clinched their spot in Detroit.

Miami and Ball State would finish the regular season in Muncie. After falling behind 6-0 early, Miami would hold a 14-12 lead at halftime, but Ball State’s defense would not let Miami increase the lead by much. Field goals were exchanged in the third and fourth quarters, and the Redhawks would take the close win 17-15, setting up the Redhawks to end the regular season at 10-2 (7-1 MAC).


Players to Watch

Who do you need to watch for Miami? There is one on each side of the ball you need to look at.

Obviously on offense, there are a bunch of skill players like Rashad Amos, Gage Larvadain (listed as questionable), and Javon Tracy. Ultimately, this game falls on Aveon Smith.

Taking over after Brett Gabbert’s injury, he led the RedHawks to a huge run at the end of the season. His overall numbers won’t blow you way, as Smith sits at 42-of-80 passing for 528 yards and two touchdowns and two interceptions, while picking up 181 yards on 54 carries, scoring once— but he has tended to show up on clutch conversion moments to keep the drive alive. Toledo’s defense has been solid, and Smith will need to be able to read them to get the RedHawks going. The RedHawks have had to rely on Smith plenty of times over the past two seasons. Smith is 9-4 as a starter for Miami.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 01 Miami (Ohio) at Miami (FL) Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Defensively, we’re looking at defensive lineman Caiden Woullard. The junior leads the Redhawks with 9.5 sacks and 11 tackles-for-loss. Toledo QB Dequan Finn has only been sacked nine times all season. Woullard will need to overpower Toledo’s front line if he wants to continue the pace he is going at. He’s got the potential to force the issue, with two forced fumbles and two blocked kicks on the year to go along with his 38 total tackles. On paper, it seems like a tall task. If the d-line can get pressure on Toledo’s offense, it will make for a very entertaining game.


Team Statistics

Offense

  • Scoring Offense: 27.2 points/game (t-65th in FBS)
  • Passing Offense: 153-of-267 (57.3%), 2,163 yards, 180.2 yards/game, 16 TDs (111th in FBS)
  • Rushing Offense: 418 carries for 1833 yards, 4.39 yards/carry, 20 TDs, 152.8 yards/game (71st in FBS)
  • Red Zone Offense: 46 red zone attempts, 24 touchdowns (16 rush, 8 pass), 18 FG made, 91.3% (18th in FBS)
  • First Downs: 80 rushing, 90 passing, 20 penalties (123rd in FBS)
  • Conversion Rates: 53-of-141 (37.6%) on 3rd Down (81st in FBS), 4 of 12 (33.3%) on 4th down (t-120th in FBS)

Defense

  • Scoring Defense: 16.33 points/game (8th in FBS)
  • Opponent Passing Offense: 213-of-356 (59.8%), 2,291 yards, 11 touchdowns, 190.9 yards/game (24th in FBS), 9 interceptions (t-73rd in FBS)
  • Opponent Rushing Offense: 439 attempts, 1,577 yards, 3.59 yards/attempt, 10 touchdowns, 131.4 yards/game (36th in FBS)
  • Sacks/Tackles for Loss: 33 sacks for 214 yards, averaging 2.75 sacks/game (t-19th in FBS), 69 TFL for 313 yards, averaging 5.8 tackles for loss/game (t-60th in FBS)
  • Red Zone Defense: 26-of-33 (9 rush TDs, 7 pass TDs, 10 field goals), 78.8% (32nd in FBS)
  • Opponent First Downs: 215 first downs (94 rush, 101 pass, 20 penalties) (t-32nd in FBS)
  • Opponent Conversion Rates: 49-of-164 (29.9%) on 3rd down (12th in FBS), 13-of-29 (44.8%) on 4th down (t-35th in FBS)

Special Teams

  • Kicking: 23-of-23 (100%) on field goals (t-1st in FBS), long of 52 yards, 36-of-37 (97.3%) on extra points
  • Punting: 47 punts for 2,162 yards, 43.89 net yards/punt, 4 touchbacks (2nd in FBS)
  • Returning: 21 kickoff returns for 356 yards, average of 16.95 yards/return (115th in FBS), 22 punt returns for 271 yards, averaging 12.32 yards/return (16th in FBS)
  • Blocked Kicks: 4 blocked kicks (t-2nd in FBS)