The 2017 Miami RedHawks’ football season began with optimism and thoughts that Chuck Martin had finally turned the corner with his program, making the Red and White a favorite to win the MAC East. After countless disappointing losses, the RedHawks’ season has turned into a collection of missed opportunities, yet coming into their Halloween matchup against Ohio, Miami had one last chance to flip the script on the 2017 story.
A win Tuesday would have moved the ‘Hawks into a tie for second place with Ohio and a chance the following week to move into first. However, turnovers, penalties and a physical Bobcat running attack led to a 45-28 Miami defeat, essentially knocking the RedHawks out of MAC contention.
At this time a year ago, the Oxford community was abuzz about their Miami football team — a program in the midst of an impressive win streak led by quarterback Gus Ragland. Three weeks ago, Ragland was sidelined due to an unspecified knee injury.
Tuesday night, all eyes were on no. 14 as soon as the ‘Hawks took the field to warm up, anxious to see if the hero of 2016 would return. Though Ragland dressed, the Redshirt junior did not see the field, leaving the keys to the offense in the hands of junior Billy Bahl.
Initially, it appeared the offense sorely missed their starting quarterback — Bahl took the RedHawks into Bobcat territory, yet threw an ill-advised pass into coverage which was picked off by Redshirt sophomore safety Javon Hagan. On the ensuing possession OU went 79 yards in two plays to take an early 14-0 lead.
“Didn’t start off well for us,” Miami head coach Martin said. “You end up losing by a couple of scores. What’s the difference? There’s two turnovers in our column and none in their’s.”
Despite the rocky start, the RedHawks recovered, eventually being able to tie the score at 14 a piece. Thanks to a balanced offensive attack featuring Redshirt junior running back Alonzo Smith and junior receiver James Gardner, the game was tied with 2:17 remaining in the opening quarter of play.
Smith rushed for 81 yards on the night on just 10 carries while Gardner dominated the first half especially, gathering seven receptions for 105 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the opening two quarters alone. The Florida native would finish with 166 yards receiving and three touchdowns.
“James obviously had a tremendous game,” Martin said. “The biggest thing with James is he is elite down the field on a go-route, elite on bank posts. He has become a complete receiver — when the ball is outside his framework, he can twist and twerk and reach and still make an unbelievable catch.”
Despite the dominance of Gardner, the Bobcats had an answer for everything Miami executed on offense. Leading the way for the defending MAC East champions was sophomore quarterback Nathan Rourke who consistently torched the Miami defense — Rourke set a season high in NCAA football for touchdowns, as the Canada native was responsible for six touchdowns on the night.
Such a big night is tough to come by on a typically staunch unit which even included senior cornerback Heath Harding, returning after a week off due to injury.
“It’s Week 10 so everyone’s hurting a little bit,” Harding said of injuries. “If I make the decision to be on that field, I need to produce. Whether I’m hurt or not hurt, I made a decision to be out there so I need to produce.”
As a result of Bobcat offensive success, the RedHawks found themselves down 28-14 with just over two minutes remaining in the first half. However, Bahl moved the ‘Hawks quickly down the field and found Gardner in the corner of the end zone for a score to make it 28-21 at halftime.
To start the second half, it appeared the Miami’s defense had found their form, allowing just 36 yards on Ohio’s first pair of second half drives. Late in the third, the offense followed suit, driving 95 yards over ten plays to tie the game at 28.
“Second half, defensively, we regrouped nicely,” Martin said. “We get pinned to our five, go 95 yards on a beautiful drive out of a hole early and get it to 28-all.”
In this moment, the tide seemed to have turned for the RedHawks, but the Bobcats rose to the challenge while Miami let the pressure get to them.
With 14:02 remaining in the game, Ohio quarterback looked deep for Redshirt junior wide receiver Papi White. However, following a pass interference call, Miami junior linebacker Junior McMullen argued with the referee, resulting in two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. McMullen was ejected and the Bobcats gained 45 yards solely on penalties. Seven plays later, Ohio punched it in to go up 42-28.
“I’m not a big believer in momentum,” Harding said of this sequence. “But you can definitely feel the tide switched there.”
In that play, not only did the momentum swing away from Miami in the game, but perhaps for good in the 2017 season. In order to make a bowl game, the RedHawks must win out and are no longer in the hunt for a MAC East title.
“Miami football hasn’t had expectations in a long time,” Harding said. “Obviously, not meeting those expectations is disappointing for us.”
The Red and White will return to Tuesday night “MACtion” next week at home, where they will take on Akron at 7:30 p.m. The game will be a part of Miami’s “Heroes Nights” honoring military active duty and veterans and can also be seen on ESPN2.