The Miami RedHawks (10-2, 7-1 MAC) arrive in Detroit, Michigan this weekend for the 2023 edition of the MAC Championship Game, securing the MAC East division title back on Nov. 15 with a win over the Buffalo Bulls.
The pride of Oxford, Ohio will be back in the Motor City for the first time since 2019, when Miami survived and advanced en route to a 7-5 overall record (6-2 MAC)— including three straight one-possession wins in conference play— to win the opportunity to play against the MAC West division champion Central Michigan Chippewas for the MAC title.
The team that season was led by a familiar name: Brett Gabbert.
At that point, Gabbert was a brand new face from St. Louis, Missouri, the first true freshman in program history to log a start for the RedHawks. His first start was an encouraging one, finishing 17-of-27 for 186 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in a 38-14 loss to Iowa. Over the season, Gabbert would put up 1,987 passing yards, 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 12 games prior to the MAC Championship, earning 2019 MAC Freshman of the Year honors.
Gabbert is still with the RedHawks to this day, even despite a brief flirtation with the transfer portal at the end of the 2022 season. Gabbert has been the team’s starting QB as long as he’s been healthy, and led the RedHawks to a 6-1 record prior to the game against Toledo, when he suffered a lower leg injury which ended his season. Gabbert had 1,634 yards, 14 touchdowns and five interceptions on a 58 percent completion rating and 140 yards and two touchdowns rushing prior to his injury.
The running back pair of Jaylon Bester and Tyre Shelton held down the backfield, with Bester finishing the 2019 campaign as one of the MAC’s most effective short-run backs, with 741 yards and 14 touchdowns on 171 carries. Shelton, then a redshirt freshman, was a relief back with 587 yards and two touchdowns.
The receiving corps featured a few curious names, with fan favorite receiver Jack Sorenson (44 receptions, 568 yards, four touchdowns) leading the way for a passing game which could be described as “perfunctory”, averaging 178 yards per game as a unit.
James Maye (Burns) was the team’s second-leading receiver as a freshman, with 20 receptions for 506 yards and one touchdown. Maye, who eventually changed his last name name to Burns, transferred to Austin Peay in 2022, where he started nine games and hauled in 517 yards and five touchdowns.
The 2019 RedHawks made their name on defense, with five future professional football players littering the starting lineup and rotation. As a unit, the defense was fairly effective, giving up an average of 28.14 points and 381.9 total yards per game, with 20 takeaways (11 interceptions, nine fumble recoveries), 114.5 tackles-for-loss and 40.5 sacks.
Their performance especially turned around come conference play after a brutal non-conference slate (which included a 76-5 loss to Ohio State), with the defense giving up more than 24 points just twice in MAC play— both of their league losses.
Ryan McWood (99 tackles) and Sterling Weatherford (98 tackles) topped the tackling charts, tying for eighth on the team with 5.5 tackles-for-loss each. Along the defensive line, Doug Costin (59 tackles, 12 TFLs, four sacks) and Kameron Butler (45 tackles, 14.5 TFLs, 5.5 sacks) were the biggest penetration threats.
Kameron Butler would wind up transferring to Virginia in 2022 as a graduate transfer, collecting 52 tackles, 9.5 TFLs and 6.5 sacks over two seasons.
The secondary was littered with future Sunday players, though it was Bart Baratti (93 tackles, 11.5 tackles-for-loss, three sacks, interception). a former walk-on turned captain, who was ultimately the heart and soul of the group. Those players who would go on to the next level of football included Emmanuel Rugamba (85 tackles, three TFLs, eight passes defensed), Travion Banks (40 tackles, team-leading five interceptions, six pass break-ups) and Mike Brown (56 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, three interceptions, two pass break-ups), who all helped anchor a stiff pass defense.
Special teams were some of the best in the NCAA in 2019, with Sam Sloman (26-of-30 field goal) and Kyle Kramer (43.36 yards per punt average; 19 punts of 50+ yards on 75 attempts) setting the tone in terms of field position.
The MAC Championship Game saw the RedHawks as 6.5-point underdogs, going into neutral (though hostile) territory against Central Michigan.
Miami seized the momentum right away, with a 98-yard kickoff return my Maurice Thomas allowing Tyre Shelton to convert for a two-yard rushing touchdown and give the RedHawks an early 7-0 lead.
The Chippewas responded with a 21-yard touchdown run by Wildcat QB Tommy Lazzaro to knot it up at 7-7. Special teams once again came into play on Miami’s next scoring drive, as a fake punt by CMU was stuffed and Sam Sloman was called in to kick a field goal to give Miami the 10-7 lead.
CMU quarterback Quinten Dormady would connect with Tyrone Scott for a touchdown to give the Chips a 14-10 lead before halftime, but the RedHawks rebounded in the third frame, scoring 10 unanswered points on a Gabbert-to-Sorenson connection and another Sloman field goal to take a 20-14 lead early in the fourth quarter.
The remaining 11 minutes would be some of the best #MACtion of the 2019 season.
Quinten Dormady’s pass intended for first-team all-MAC receiver JaCorey Sullivan was picked off by Travion Brown for an apparent pick-six— though it was eventually brought back to the spot of the turnover— to give the ball back to Miami, who still led by one score.
The Chippewas defense seemingly stopped the RedHawks on first-and-10 at the Miami 25-yard line for a four-yard loss— but a controversial targeting call on linebacker Troy Brown gifted Miami a new set of downs, allowing them to grind away over six more minutes of clock before cashing in a short Sam Sloman field goal to go up 23-14 with four minutes remaining.
CMU went into overdrive, needing just over two minutes before Tommy Lazzaro scored his second touchdown of the afternoon on a seven-yard scamper to pull CMU within two points.
As it had all afternoon, the game would come down to who performed better on special teams, as Kaden Keon, CMU’s kickoff specialist, executed the onsides and reserve defensive back Rollian Sturkey fell on the ball, giving Central the ball. But a penalty flag revealed Sturkey was just offsides, gifting Miami the ball once again with advantageous field position.
Sam Sloman, as he had all game, trotted on to boot what would be the game-sealing field goal from 42 yards out. CMU had a last-gasp Hail Mary to try and steal a chance to win at the end, but Sterling Weatherford broke up the pass to effectively end the contest.
Miami won by a final score of 26-21, adding their 16th conference title to the trophy case.
The 2019 Miami RedHawks would see a dozen of its members play football post-Oxford.
Emmanuel Rugamba latched on with the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League, where he’s been a fan favorite after making his debut in 2022. He was named an All-Star in 2023 at the cornerback position.
Sterling Weatherford (Indianapolis), Mike Brown (Minnesota), Cedric Boswell (Detroit), Jack Sorenson (Cincinnati) and Doug Costin (Jacksonville) were all undrafted free agents in the NFL when they became eligible. Brown is currently a member of the Tennessee Titans 53-man roster, and was recently activated off injured reserve.
Sam Sloman would go on to be a seventh-round selection of the Los Angeles Rams in the 2020 NFL Draft, while Kyle Kramer eventually settled into the rebooted USFL, where he has contributed as a punter for the Michigan Panthers.
The name who wound up with the most successful college and pro career in the receiving corps would be Dominique Robinson— who would convert to a defensive end during the 2020 COVID season. The future 2022 NFL Draft pick was Miami’s fourth-leading receiver, with 14 catches for 296 yards.
Two-time all-MAC first team offensive lineman Tommy Doyle was the lone pro prospect in the offensive trenches, with the six-foot-eight, 326 lb. lineman going 161st overall to the Buffalo Bills in the 2021 NFL Draft. Doyle found national fame after catching a touchdown pass from Josh Allen in a blowout vs. New England, but has since struggled with back-to-back long-term knee injuries.
Travion Brown would go on to have a successful career in the arena football circuit, signing with the Indoor Football League’s Northern Arizona Wranglers in January 2023. Banks will return to Northern Arizona after a successful rookie campaign, re-signing with the team earlier this month.
Ivan Pace Jr., who played in six games as a true freshman, mostly on special teams, may just have been the most successful former 2019 RedHawk. Pace would finish his three-year stint in Oxford as one of Miami’s most dominant players in program history, finishing as a first-team all-MAC linebacker in 2021 after a 125-tackle campaign which saw him also collect 13 TFLs and four sacks.
Pace would transfer to Cincinnati in 2022 to play with his brother, finishing the season as a consensus All-American and the AAC Defensive Player of the Year. He was part of the Bearcats team who qualified for the College Football Playoffs, playing the Georgia Bulldogs in the semifinal game.
Pace would go on to be undrafted in the 2023 NFL Draft, signing with the Minnesota Vikings and ultimately winning a starting job over veteran options. Pace has impressed since his arrival, and is considered as one of the best rookie prospects by national writers.
The current version of the Miami RedHawks enter their contest against Toledo as even stiffer underdogs than back in 2019, facing an eight-point spread against the nationally-ranked Rockets.
Kickoff for the game from Detroit’s Ford Field is set for Saturday, December 2nd at noon Eastern time, with ESPN providing the coverage.