The Miami RedHawks play the Appalachian State Mountaineers on national TV this Saturday in the 2023 Avocados From Mexico Cure Bowl. Both teams made their conference Championship Game as underdogs, with Miami beat Toledo 23-14 in Detroit to claim the MAC title while App State fell to Troy 49-23 in the Sun Belt Championship Game.
Miami is coming off its second MAC Championship under head coach Chuck Martin and the 16th in program history. Their 11 wins are the most since 2003, when Ben Roethlisberger was passing for almost 4,500 yards. Despite the success, the RedHawks haven’t steamrolled everyone on their schedule and have won the last five games with their backup quarterback Aveon Smith.
Brett Gabbert was injured in the team’s last loss, their regular season matchup with Toledo. Gabbert was also injured the previous season, giving Smith a lot of starting experience in relief over both seasons. Gabbert has announced his intention to return and now Smith is in the transfer portal.
App State has had its share of problems this season as well. Since before they jumped to FBS in 2014, the Mountaineers have had nothing but success. They won FCS National Championships in 2005, 2006 and 2007 under head coach Jerry Moore and Scott Satterfield maintained the high level of football through the transition to FBS.
Once they became bowl-eligible in the 2015 season, the Mountaineers went to seven-straight bowl games, winning six of those. That’s all to say when App State found themselves 3-4 after back-to-back losses, head coach Shawn Clark’s job was not safe. The Mountaineers righted the ship and ripped off five wins, including a win over undefeated James Madison on the road.
What do the numbers say about the 2023 Cure Bowl? I pulled advanced stats for the entire season from my favorite website, collegefootballdata.com, with garbage time removed. We have as much data as possible about these teams, so let's break it down!
Miami defense vs. App State offense is best on best
The chart above shows the average yards and average yards allowed for each team this season. Both team’s identity shows up immediately in the macro stats. App State uses a high-flying offense to throw the ball around and outscore their opponents. Their defense struggles to contain their opponent's running game, while Miami’s defense has held everyone in check. Their offense has done enough to get wins in most games, but it’s clearly the weaker unit.
The RedHawk defense is 21st in total yards per game allowed, and their specialty is allowing their opponents only 6.54 yards per attempt. Miami leans on its defense and runs an offense that shortens games; their games have 16 fewer plays than App State’s. That could be anywhere from one to four fewer possessions and it shows in the volume stats. The Miami offense and the App State defense earn/allow the same yards per play.
The App State offense is 34th in the nation in rushing yards per game and 21st in the nation in passing yards per game. They can pick their method of attack and adapt to what the defense is giving them. The Mountaineers are 15th in total yards per game and should stress the excellent Miami defense.
The Mountaineer defense allows 28.4 points per game and the Miami offense finished above the “Ferentz line” at 26.9 points per game. Miami scored a season-high 62 points against FCS opponent Delaware State. A 41-point game at UMass and scoring 34 against Western Michigan were their highest outputs against FBS competition. If Miami had all of their offensive personnel, scoring points might not be their biggest issue against App State.
The Mountaineers defense has done enough to win this season. They held their opponents under 20 points twice this season and allowed 28 or more in six of seven games. Their strength is in defending the pass and their opponents continued to test the secondary. They intercepted 15 passes while allowing 6.7 yards per pass. Only a little more than Miami.
Can Miami disrupt App State’s passing attack?
This radar chart compares the Miami defense and the App State offense over ten stats. The first six starting at the 12 o’clock position are running categories and the next four are passing. The further away the data point is from the center, the better the unit is ranked in that category. Big gaps are where advantages can be found and close data points could go either way or negate each other.
Miami holds a pretty large advantage in the running game, per the summary stat rushing PPA. Predicted Points Added is explained in the link, but it measures the difference in predicted points from one play to another. Rushing PPA only looks at rushing plays and Miami creates that edge by limiting their opponent's success rate running the ball and not allowing the big play. App State has generated more line yards and doesn’t get stuffed at or behind the line. It makes sense that they have the advantage in front seven havoc rate based on their other advantages.
Miami will happily give up two or three yards on the ground, but they don’t give wide running lanes. Even in the passing game, the RedHawks are content to keep everything in front of them.
The passing matchup is what will separate the two units. App State has a high success rate when passing but too many passes are broken up or intercepted. Their opponents got their hands on 66 passes over the course of the season including nine interceptions. Knocking down passes is a strength of the Miami secondary and one player, Cornerback Raion Strader, broke up 12 passes on his own this season.
MAC Defensive Player of the Year Matt Salopek and Sun Belt Newcomer of the Year Joey Aguilar headline this matchup of excellent units. App State is the seventh-highest-scoring offense this season and Miami is the 20th-best scoring defense. Miami has been excellent on third downs and getting off the field (29.6 percent) and has almost no critical players in the transfer portal. App State is going to be missing their leading running back and two wide receivers, but they are a deep team that has the athletes to plug into the holes.
The Miami defense needs to keep the Mountaineer offense off the field so a conservative offense has a chance to get on the board.
Miami will run the ball, can App State stop it?
This is where numbers without context can get an analyst in trouble. All of the stats that I can find are going to not fully represent the offense that Miami is going to send out on the field on Saturday. Brett Gabbert played the first seven games at full health and was leading the offense. He’s been in that offense under Chuck Martin for five seasons. The offense changed when he left the first Toledo game.
Aveon Smith is not asked to be the passer that Gabbert is, but he can run the ball. Miami has a tendency to be conservative on offense but that tendency got cranked up to 11 with Smith at quarterback.
The total year stats have the RedHawk offense as the team with the 18th highest run percentage in college football at 57 percent. It is much higher than that over the final five games.
Now Aveon Smith is in the transfer portal, leaving redshirt sophomore Henry Hesson, who hasn’t thrown a pass this season, as the team’s new starter. In 2022, he threw five passes for two completions against Robert Morris. He ran the ball twice for 17 yards. There is no way they ask him to throw the ball 30 times.
All of this makes the rushing categories of the radar chart worth much more than the passing categories. The RedHawks hold the advantage, but will that hold true with a limited threat to pass the ball? One major advantage that Miami will certainly leverage is their ability to hit the big play on the ground. Rashad Amos can burst through the line and run over undersized safeties.
Their offense plays to get their defense in good field position and will settle for a field goal too often for most college kickers. This season, however, they have had the Groza Award winner in Graham Nicholson so the strategy has worked. Miami will play to shorten the game and convert as many short fields into points as possible.