On Oct. 21, a highly-anticipated matchup in Oxford, OH suddenly turned into a nightmare. Not exactly because Miami (OH) fell 21-17 to Toledo in a clash between the MAC’s top two records, but because of a certain play which transpired in the waning moments of the fourth quarter.
Starting quarterback Brett Gabbert got sandwiched in between two Toledo defenders on a rushing attempt near the goal line, causing his leg to twist in undesirable fashion. The energy suddenly vanquished from Yager Stadium in a moment which silenced the Miami fans, the coaching staffs, and the players — including those donning Toledo uniforms. Gabbert writhed in pain, threw his helmet, and a noticeable line of blood decorated his sock. The quarterback couldn’t move his lifeless-looking right leg and was transitioned to a stretcher, exiting the stadium wearing an air cast.
Gabbert was out for the remainder of the season.
“I was kneeling on the field with our starting quarterback and his bone’s sticking out of his skin,” Miami head coach Chuck Martin said. “The amazing thing is Brett, he was screaming in pain obviously and then shock set in and didn’t hurt as much. And the first thing out of his mouth is, ‘We can still get to Detroit. You know that, right?’”
In the most unfortunate moment of his football career, Gabbert spoke something into existence.
The fifth-year starting quarterback knows what it takes to qualify for the MAC Championship Game in Detroit. He lived it as a true freshman in 2019, leading the RedHawks to their first MAC title since 2010. But part of Gabbert’s prophecy was his unwavering faith in backup quarterback Aveon Smith. Once Smith overcame the initial distress of watching the injury unfold, he settled into the new starting quarterback role and guided Miami back to its first MAC Championship appearance in five years — winning every start to conclude the regular season.
“Seeing 5 go down and knowing you’re up next and you haven’t stretched in the last hour or two, it was tough at that moment mentally more than physically,” Smith said, recalling Gabbert’s injury. “I had to do what I needed to do to bring us a W and I didn’t do that. I feel like it’s important for me and my teammates to get it done this weekend to show them that I’ve been prepared this whole time and be ready for the moment when it comes.”
Watching a five-year starting quarterback with multiple All-MAC selections go down in such a brutal fashion can break a team’s confidence. It took an emotional toll on many teammates and coaches, watching Gabbert’s leg bend in unfathomable fashion. But even the most veteran members of the team understand that Smith — who has been a RedHawk since 2020 — is a leader they can rally around. Simply put, because he’s a winner in every sense of the word.
“Brett’s been one of my best friends since I got here,” defensive tackle Austin Ertl said. “Being on the sideline and seeing that go down, obviously I got tears rolling down my eyes because that’s my brother. That’s my guy. That’s the guy I go to for everything. Seeing a guy like that go down in that way with that type of injury is devastating to the team, but devastating to me personally. But this team’s rallied around Aveon. He’s a winner. That’s all he is. Dude finds a way to win whether it might be running the ball, throwing the ball, getting the extra yard when we need to, putting his head down — the guy does anything he can to help this team win, and that’s what we rallied around.”
Smith isn’t your ordinary backup. He possesses more starts than many full-time FBS starting quarterbacks. Saturday will mark Smith’s 14th time thrust into the starting lineup and he fared 9-4 in his previous 13 opportunities, sporting a spotless 4-0 record in 2023 following Gabbert’s injury. Smith certainly witnessed his ups and downs during his nine starts in 2022, but accruing that valuable experience finally came to fruition in the form of a MAC Championship Game appearance.
“Last year I gained some experience under my belt,” Smith said. “They have faith in me because I played last year. My team understood how I was as a person and as a player, so I feel like it was a huge help being able to play last year for sure.”
One of Smith’s nine starts in 2022 came with massive stakes. In a season finale rivalry trophy battle, both Miami and Ball State sported 5-6 records. Before the Tuesday night game kicked off, it was announced the winner would receive a bid to the Bahamas Bowl while the loser would watch their 2022 campaign conclude before Thanksgiving. Miami trailed Ball State 17-3, but Smith overcame a shaky start and posted 217 passing yards, 84 rushing yards, and guided the RedHawks on a rabid comeback — accounting for two touchdowns in the final two minutes.
Experience in such a monumental conference matchup helps Smith ease into the MAC Championship Game mindset.
“We were working to get for the Bahamas at the time,” Smith said. “We were playing for a chance at a bowl game. We kind of had a chip on our shoulder at the time with Brett going down two games before. I wouldn’t say it’s the same situation but it’s similar because it’s a MAC championship. It’s very important. It’s what we’ve worked for this whole time. Being in that situation already, I’m prepared for it. I just gotta put on my mouthpiece and play.”
When searching for specific advice pertaining to the MAC Championship Game, Smith went straight to the expert. In 2019, Gabbert led the RedHawks to a 26-21 point victory over Central Michigan despite entering the game as 6-point underdogs. This year’s Miami team shares similar underdog status, as Toledo is currently an 8-point favorite. Miami never turned the ball over in that 2019 MAC Championship Game victory, and Gabbert emphasized ball security as the No. 1 priority for Smith, who avoided an interception in three of his four starts this year.
“Just cool, calm, and collected. Control what you can control,” Smith recited about the advice Gabbert gave him heading into Saturday’s game. “A lot of times, you get into situations like this and feel like you have to do a lot and you go out of your way to do certain things, but just play the game and stick to the gameplan and it will all work out. He told me taking care of the football is the most important thing to do.”
Coincidentally, the opponent Smith faces Saturday is the same opponent Miami faced when Gabbert suffered his season-ending injury. Before this season, the RedHawks and Rockets hadn’t settled things on the gridiron since 2011, but now, the two couldn’t be more familiar with each other. Although Smith played roughly one quarter in the 21-17 October defeat, one quarter of experiencing Toledo’s 28th ranked scoring defense firsthand was enough to assist with the preparation stage.
“It helps a little bit,” Smith said. “I know a lot of the tendencies and a lot of the different looks that they do. I know their defensive line is pretty aggressive. They’re a good football team. Their corners stay pretty aggressive. It’s cool to know already, even though it was just a quarter. It’s kind of good to see a lot of different things that they do, watching it on film, and seeing it in person, being with it in person — it’s a lot of help.”
Saturday is a massive day in the history of the Miami RedHawks program and for Smith. It’s a day the quarterback envisioned since first learning the sport at age eight. Many of his family members will make the trip from South Carolina to Detroit in recognition of his opportunity in a championship setting. Smith already helped the RedHawks get this far, and the experienced backup is going to try to bring MAC championship hardware back to Oxford, OH for the first time in five years.
“Our kids have confidence in him. They know he’s gonna compete. They know he’s gonna make plays,” Martin said. “For him, last year when (Gabbert’s injury) happened, he came out his first game and it was his first ever college snap. This year, whether it’s the fourth quarter against Toledo or the next week at (Ohio), he’s played before, so it’s not like, ‘Hey, what are we getting?’ It’s not nice that your backup quarterback’s played as much the last two years as he’s had to because you want your starter in there, but it certainly was nice. We had a lot of work to do after the Toledo loss to get to Detroit and he’s been a big part of it.”