Buy your plane tickets and book your hotel rooms. For the second time in three years, Miami football is bowl-eligible.
The RedHawks downed Ball State 42-21 at Yager Stadium on Tuesday night to complete their improbable quest to six wins – the requisite number to earn a bowl berth.
To start the season, the RedHawks lost four of their first five games, including their first three. Once they shook off the woeful start, injuries piled up as their tough schedule continued. The team played the majority of its games without senior wideout James Gardner, senior defensive tackle Nate Trawick, senior linebacker Junior McMullen and other usual starters.
“Couldn’t be prouder of our group,” head coach Chuck Martin said. “Couldn’t be prouder of our staff. Everyone is this building kept their head down. Everyone in this building didn’t talk to anyone outside this building. No one was calling us, saying, ‘Hey, hang in there. We believe in you.’ No, I didn’t get one of those. Not one.”
But after Tuesday night’s win, fans who weathered the night’s cold air and the team’s early-season struggles stormed the field.
Just like the entire 2018 season, Miami (6-6, 6-2 Mid-American) started slow but ended quickly against the Cardinals.
In the first quarter and 12 minutes, the RedHawks allowed Ball State (4-8, 3-5 MAC) to take a 21-7 lead on one passing and two rushing touchdowns.
Miami’s lone score — a one-yard quarterback sneak by redshirt senior Gus Ragland — came sandwiched between the Cardinals’ first and second touchdowns.
After a 22-yard touchdown grab by Ball State’s redshirt junior wideout Riley Miller increased Miami’s deficit to 14, the RedHawks decided it was their turn to take flight.
Between the four-minute mark of the second quarter and the 10-minute mark of the fourth, they rattled off 35 unanswered points to gain firm control of the game.
During that stretch, redshirt senior running back and key offensive weapon Kenny Young went down with a leg injury and didn’t return. Redshirt senior Alonzo Smith and redshirt junior Maurice Thomas stepped into Young’s place and embodied Martin’s season-long “next man up” philosophy.
They led Miami to 364 yards on the ground — the team’s season-high and its first 300-yard rushing game since a 399-yard performance against Akron in 1999.
Smith tallied a career-high 207 yards on his own to become the first RedHawk to run for 200 yards since Steve Little recorded 222 at Buffalo in 2000. Smith added three touchdowns.
“I was feeling great,” Smith said. “Obviously, the offensive line was opening up holes. I just trusted my talent like my coaches always tell me to do. And Kenny Young was out, so I was playing for my brother.”
After the game, Smith joked about how effective his juke move was: “I think it was [NFL-worthy].”
Thomas gained 41 yards on 11 carries.
After surrendering 21 points and dealing with a myriad of Cardinal trick plays in the first half, Miami’s defense rebounded and pitched a shutout the rest of the way.
Ragland effectively managed the game with 159 passing yards, three touchdowns (one passing, two rushing) and one interception. He tossed just two passes in the second half.
Ball State’s redshirt sophomore quarterback Drew Plitt threw for 175 yards and ran for 41 more, picking up one passing and one rushing touchdown.
The contest served as the final regular-season game for 19 RedHawk seniors.
Miami remains in contention for the MAC East crown, but the road to the conference championship game in Detroit is uphill.
The RedHawks need Bowling Green (3-8, 2-5 MAC) to defeat Buffalo (9-2, 6-1 MAC) and Ohio (7-4, 5-2 MAC) to beat Akron (4-6, 2-5 MAC) on Friday. If either conditional fails, they will spend Nov. 30 sitting at home.
“If I could help [BG and OU] any way I could— I don’t think it’s legal — I would,” Martin said. “Obviously, we never root for OU, but we’ll be rooting for OU. That’s hard to do, but for one day, I can root for OU. Unless it looks like BG’s not going to beat Buffalo, then I’ll go back to rooting against OU like we always do. But I’ll be rooting for them.
“I’ll have the whammies and the voodoos — I don’t believe in that crud, but my wife does, so I’ll get her going. She’ll try to put some whammies on people during Thanksgiving.”
Whammies or not, Martin’s RedHawks kept their season alive. In the next month, they could be playing in the MAC Championship and a bowl for just the second time since 2010.
Miami won’t find out if it’s invited to a bowl until after next week’s conference championships.