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2023 Cure Bowl Game Preview: Miami RedHawks vs. Appalachian State Mountaineers

The Cure Bowl is a big time G5 bowl game with high level teams from the MAC and the Sun Belt this year. Miami’s defense and App State’s offense is the matchup to watch.

NCAA Football: Cure Bowl-Northern Illinois at Coastal Carolina Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The Cure Bowl has traditionally been on the opening weekend of the bowl season, and has also traditionally been a banger. The last four Cure Bowls have been one-possession games with an average of 57 total points. Jon Sumrall (now at Tulane) and the excellent Troy defense smothered the #25 UTSA Roadrunners led by quarterback Frank Harris last season, and the year before saw Coastal Carolina score a go-ahead touchdown with under seven minutes left to beat Northern Illinois.

The Avocados From Mexico Cure Bowl is another excellent matchup this season, matching up the MAC Champion Miami RedHawks and the Appalachian State Mountaineers, who finished as runner-ups in the Sun Belt Championship Game.

Miami brings the best defense in the MAC to Orlando, and App State’s offense would be the #1 scoring offense in the MAC. These teams will be evenly matched no matter who has the ball and the game could come down to the final drive.

Chuck Martin has his first 10-win season at Miami and his second MAC Championship. A Cure Bowl win could give the RedHawks their first 12-win season since 2003, when they won 13 contests. Their complimentary football style has worked this year. They have the #14 defense in the nation per ESPN’s SP+, their offense plays a conservative style and the special teams keep their opponents operating on long fields or add points three at a time. It’s a little maddening watching a college team play for a field goal, but when their kicker Graham Nicholson wins the Lou Groza Award they get away with it.

Shawn Clark and App State were on a five-game winning streak heading into the Sun Belt Championship Game but Troy exploded for 49 points. Clark is in his fourth full season coaching the Mountaineers, taking over after Eli Drinkwitz took the Missouri job in 2019. A win in the Cure Bowl would give the Mountaineers their ninth win of the season and be a solid launching point for next season after missing a bowl in 2022 for the first time since their promotion to the FBS level of play.

When App State has the ball the best units will be on the field but Miami’s offense versus the App State defense could be the critical matchup. Who has the edge in the Cure Bowl? Lets get into it!


Game notes

  • Time and date: Saturday, December 16th, 2023 at 3:30 p.m. Eastern time
  • Location: FBC Mortgage Stadium in Orlando, Florida
  • Network: ABC (A valid cable subscription is required.)
  • Gambling considerations: App State is favored by 5.5 points, and the over/under is set at 47, per DraftKings.
  • All-time series: These two teams have never played each other.
  • Bowl History: Miami has made four bowl games in the last five seasons. They have won one of them with this game to play. App State has qualified for a bowl game in eight of nine seasons since moving up to FBS. The Mountaineers are 6-1 in those games.

When Miami has the ball:

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

Miami’s offense has had two distinct seasons. Their fifth-year starting quarterback Brett Gabbert started the season and was averaging 8.7 passing yards per attempt. Transfer wide receiver Gage Larvadain was a huge part of that with 432 receiving yards in the first three weeks. Larvadain left the next game with an injury and was in and out of the lineup the rest of the season.

Gabbert broke his leg in Week 8 against Toledo and was immediately done for the season. Aveon Smith started nine games last season for the RedHawks, but the offense is different when he’s running the show. Smith runs the ball 13 times per game on average and passes 15 times. In the last five games of this season, Miami ran the ball 184 times in their 273 offensive plays and it worked. Miami won each game including the MAC Championship, revenging the loss to Toledo.

Now the biggest problem they face is another change at quarterback. Gabbert announced his intention to return for his sixth season, while Smith entered into the transfer portal shortly afterwards. Enter redshirt sophomore Henry Hesson, who appeared in one game this season and has attempted four passes in his college career, with none this year. Critics might say that the offense Miami chooses to run is overly conservative, but that’s going to be cranked up to 11 on Saturday.

App State has struggled to defend the run this season, allowing five yards per rush to their opponents. Miami’s stats in the running game can be a little misleading because they have been so unbalanced offensively. They are not great at staying ahead of the chains, but running back Rashad Amos breaks off big runs frequently. The all-MAC Third team running back finished with 895 yards and 12 touchdowns this season and 474 of those yards (and 8 touchdowns) have come in the final five games. He has exploded onto the scene despite defenses knowing he’s coming.

The App State defense is led by linebacker Andrew Parker and cornerback Tyrek Funderburk. Both were all-Sun Belt first-team defenders, with Parker proving to be a tackling machine and Funderburk collecting four interceptions and eight pass break-ups. The advantages they have at first glance are in standard down success rate and creating havoc plays, especially on passing plays. Freshman linebacker Nate Johnson finished with 8.5 tackles-for-loss, including 7.5 sacks, and is a player that Miami will need to keep track of.

The havoc rate from the secondary may be hampered by Miami’s run-heavy offense, but it takes one play to tilt the game heavily. If Funderburk or safety Jordan Favors can intercept a pass in a young player's first start, that could be all the advantage the Mountaineers need.

There will be moments in the game where Miami needs to throw the ball to keep their offense on the field. They might decide third-and-eight is running down and punt on fourth-and-two, or they could see what Hesson can do with Larvadain, Cade McNamara and Joe Wilkins running routes. If Miami can find a way to force App State to respect the pass, I like what that could do for their running game.


When App State has the ball:

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 10 Coastal Carolina at Appalachian State Photo by David Jensen/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Miami has an incredible defense, but there isn’t a passing attack in the MAC that can touch what App State does. If we look at the conference-only passing stats, Ohio leads the MAC with 226 passing yards per game. App State leads the Sun Belt with 295 passing yards per game. Their 24 passing touchdowns are significantly more than Toledo’s MAC-leading 15. That split of the stats does leave out their tougher opponents and a portion of the year when the Mountaineers were struggling. I believe that they are more likely to play like they did in their final five games of the regular season than at the start.

It’s no surprise that Joey Aguilar is the Sun Belt Newcomer of the Year in 2023 after transferring in from Diablo Valley Community College. He’s thrown for 3,546 yards, 33 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He spreads the ball around and six players have at least 20 catches this year. His top target is Kaedin Robinson, who has nearly 60 receptions and ten touchdowns.

Nate Noel led the Mountaineers in rushing attempts and yards, but he is in the transfer portal. Backup Kanye Roberts was an All-Sun Belt Honorable Mention with a higher yards per rush average than Noel. Two of App State’s wide receivers are in the transfer portal as well, but they have plenty of athletes to keep their offense running how they want to.

On the other side of the ball is the MAC’s Defensive Player of the Year Matt Salopek, who leads a front seven peppered with All-MAC talent. Salopek and defensive lineman Caiden Woullard made the all-MAC first team and linebacker Ty Wise and defensive lineman Brian Ugwu made the All-MAC Second Team. It’s a strong group that keeps the running game under wraps and allows the defensive backs to do their thing.

Yahsyn McKee led the team with three interceptions, but McKee with Michael Dowell and Raion Strider have combined to break up 26 passes. They don’t get burnt and they knock down a ton of passes. Third down and more than six to go is where this defense likes to live and make life difficult for opponents; they get off the field on third down more than 70 percent of the time.

Both units rate highly in passing PPA and success rate. This matchup will depend on who gains the upper hand for the longest in those two stats. I don’t think that App State will be immobilized if their running game isn’t as strong as it normally is, but if Miami creates turnover opportunities on passing plays the Mountaineers might have to win with their defense.


Prediction:

Miami’s offense will depend largely on the day that Rashad Amos and Henry Hesson have. If Rashad is grinding out first down after first down, Miami could be fine. App State will absolutely gear up for the run and force a player making his first career start to beat them. Maybe he’s the best quarterback that Chuck Martin has had at Miami, but he’s third on the depth chart.

App State was held to 23 points in the Sun Belt by Troy, another team built around a solid defense. I expect them to score a few times and challenge Miami in new ways or with better talent, but not blow the doors off. This time, with the offensive challenges their opponent has, that could be enough.

Miami 17
App State 24