Simply put, the 2018 season is on the line tonight when the Ball State Cardinals arrive at Yager Stadium.
With a win, the RedHawks become bowl-eligible and stay alive in the Mid-American Conference East hunt, a situation that felt unrealistic three weeks ago following a shootout road loss to Buffalo.
Sitting at 3-6 after Buffalo, Miami had to beat an explosive Ohio offense and a staunch Northern Illinois. They did and allowed just 19.5 points a game in conference play to stay alive heading into Week 12.
Yet with one game left to play in 2018, the RedHawks remain very much alive despite injuries to preseason All-MAC selections including senior wide receiver James Gardner, senior linebacker Junior McMullen and others.
“You’re kind of the dumb kid that thinks he’s better than he is and is kind of pissed off that no one knows it,” Miami head coach Chuck Martin said of his team. “I’m as proud as any group I’ve coached.”
The final obstacle standing between the RedHawks and a 6-6 season is the 4-7 Ball State Cardinals. Though Miami is given an 82 percent chance to win tonight, the Ball State passing attack poses a threat to the depleted Miami defense.
The Cardinals lead the MAC with 2,796 total passing yards on the year behind the arm of junior quarterback Riley Neal.
The RedHawks have struggled against pass-heavy offenses this season, surrendering 40 or more points to both Western Michigan and Buffalo earlier in the season, though they have allowed an average of just 179 passing yards the past two weeks.
The already potent aerial attack of Ball State could be assisted by the injury of Miami’s redshirt senior linebacker Brad Koenig. Koenig has accumulated 90 total tackles in 2018 while forcing eight turnovers.
For Martin’s defense, injuries are hardly a new form of adversity this season.
After looking at his list of preseason top defensive performers, Martin said: “All my defensive guys that are on that [list] don’t play for me anymore.”
Despite uncertainty around Koenig’s status, Miami players swear to be laser-focused on the task at hand amidst accumulating aches and pains built-up throughout the season.
“I’m pretty beat up, but I love it,” senior defensive end Pasquale Calcagno said. “I love football.”
For seniors like Calcagno, today’s game will be extra special as he takes the Yager Stadium turf for the last time wearing a Miami uniform. As postseason hopes hang in the balance, the senior class will be reminded of just how far they have come since arriving in Oxford.
“We wanted to be the group of guys who changed the way football is viewed around here,” redshirt senior quarterback Gus Ragland said.
In Coach Martin’s inaugural season at the helm of the program, this senior class suffered through a 2-10 season before improving to just 3-9 in 2015.
The mindset surrounding Miami football shifted in 2016 when the RedHawks rattled off six consecutive wins to earn a bowl berth.
“Those kids have battled and fought,” Martin said. “Even though they have accomplished so much, they’ve gotten no credit for anything.”
Today, the painful seasons of MAC irrelevance will feel like a distant memory to these seniors as they fight one last time for the legacy of the 2018 team. No matter the outcome, this group believes they have left their mark on the program.
“If we go to a bowl, that’d be great,” Calcagno said. “If not, I had a great run of it with all my best friends.”
Kickoff is at 7 p.m. at Yager. The game will be broadcast on ESPN+.