After pulling off a historic winning streak to claim a share of the MAC East title, the Miami RedHawks (6-6) now have an opportunity to prove that they are back as contenders in the MAC with a match-up against the Mississippi State Bulldogs (5-7) in the 2016 St. Petersburg Bowl on Monday. Despite being 11-point underdogs as of this writing, the RedHawks are no strangers to the SEC in bowl games as they have three bowl wins against the league.
MSU has been up-and-down all year, but one consistent had been the play of Nick Fitzgerald, who has carried the team with 2,287 passing yards, 1,322 rushing yards, and 35 total touchdowns. Miami’s defense under Chuck Martin typically struggles with quarterbacks that can run, so containing Fitzgerald ought to be priority number one for the ‘Hawks. Fred Ross and Donald Gray have been the sophomore quarterback’s favorite targets this season as Ross hauled in 68 receptions for 873 yards and 12 TDs while Gray helped out with 39 catches for 691 yards and five scores.
Defensively, the Bulldogs are a disruptive bunch as Jonathan Calvin and A.J. Jefferson each have 10+ tackles for loss on the season with Calvin recording sevens sacks. The linebacking corps is very active as three backers make up the top three on the team in tackles with Richie Brown leading the way with 70.5 tackles, four TFLs, 1.5 sacks, a pass breakup and a forced fumble. As good as the D has been, it has struggled to keep teams out of the end zone as the team has allowed 32 touchdowns in 53 red zone trips.
Meanwhile, Gus Ragland has been on fire since taking over the quarterback spot for Miami with 1,274 passing yards, 15 TDs, and zero interceptions. Ragland is currently sixth in the nation in passing efficiency, which makes him a perfect fit for Martin’s ball-control offense as the RedHawks have won the time of possession battle in seven games this season. The passing game has been balanced as well with four receivers pulling down 20+ catches with James Gardner and Jared Murphy each catching 40+ balls and five touchdowns.
The defense for the ‘Hawks has been stellar all season long as it is first in the MAC in total defense, second in run defense, third in scoring defense, and has accumulated 24 sacks as well as 14 INTs. J.T. Jones has one more game to make program history as he is two sacks away from second place in career sacks at MU. The strength of the unit is the back end with Heath Harding and De’Andre Montgomery as the pair each have four picks on the season.
This game is a huge deal for Miami, as it can build some serious momentum into next season with much of the starters coming back. However, Mississippi State is arguably the most talented team it has faced this season and presents a lot of challenges for the Red and White. If the offensive line can keep Ragland upright (which might be problematic due to the injury to Zach Swarts), the RedHawks will have some chances to move the ball. MU needs to force the Bulldogs to methodically drive the ball down the field to see if Fitzgerald is patient enough to take what the defense gives him. Regardless of the outcome, this has the makings of a great bowl game, one that has been long overdue for Miami.