Wednesday night’s football game had a plethora of ramifications for the Miami RedHawks — the final home game of the season was the last chance for seniors such as Tony Reid, Heath Harding and Ryan Smith to play at Yager Stadium to become one game closer to bowl eligibility.
On the other hand, the Eastern Michigan Eagles, coming in with seven losses, had no postseason aspirations to play for on a weeknight road game. However, the Eagles appeared to be the inspired team early on while Miami slept walk on their opening possessions.
Before the ‘Hawks could even get a play off to start the game, offensive linemen jumped on consecutive snaps, putting the Red and White in an early first and 20 position. A few plays later, the RedHawk offense stalled and punted it into the eager hands of the Eagles offense, who proceeded to keep the Miami defense on its heels for the entirety of the first quarter.
Only averaging 110 rushing yards per game in 2017, Eastern Michigan ran 13 times for 99 yards in the opening quarter of play, thanks in large part to junior running back Ian Erickson — Erickson rushed for 86 yards in the touchdown in the first quarter alone.
“They didn’t really do too much we hadn’t seen,” Redshirt junior linebacker Brad Koenig said. “We were prepared for it, we just didn’t execute it to the best of our ability.”
However, the second quarter saw the awakening of the RedHawks, as the home team put up 17 points in the period, thanks in large part once again to the two-headed beast of a rushing attack led by Redshirt juniors Alonzo Smith and Kenny Young. The duo ran for a combined 116 yards in the opening half with Young rushing for two scores.
While the Miami offense continued to gain steam as the first half progressed, the Eastern Michigan offense also maintained a steady yardage output, compiling 279 first half total yards. The Eagles, one of the most potent offenses in the MAC, typically produce such yardage, however it usually comes from the arm of star senior quarterback Brogan Roback. On Wednesday night, the Eagles ran for 209 yards on 43 carries.
“Even when they don’t run it well, they stay with it,” RedHawk head coach Chuck Martin said of Eastern’s rushing attack. “They’re going to run the ball, they’re going to carve out existence in the run and try to set up their pass game which they do a nice job of.”
With the Eastern offense clicking, it took the RedHawk defense making opportunistic plays to keep the Red and White in the game. The biggest of such plays came with 5:08 remaining in the first half when Roback completed a pass into the flat that appeared to be on its way to a respectable gain for the Eagles until senior corner Heath Harding somehow popped the ball out of the hands of the receiver for Brad Koenig to snag while tiptoeing the sideline.
“I was running my drop and they completed it,” Koenig said. “I was running to the ball and Heath makes a great play forcing the ball — I was fortunate enough to be there and caught it.”
On the ensuing drive, the ‘Hawks went 36 yards in six plays to go up by a score of 17-10 with 2:34 remaining in the half. The Eagles responded by marching right down into Miami territory, knocking on the door of taking a lead into the half. However, the RedHawk defense caught a break when freshman receiver Matthew Sexton dropped a wide open pass in the end zone. Eastern Michigan settled for a field goal to go into the locker room down 17-13.
After the Eagles missed out on a golden touchdown opportunity, it appeared the halftime momentum remained on the side of Miami. However, the Eagles offense just kept on moving in the opening drive of the second half, going 74 yards on seven plays, capped off by a 32-yard strike from Roback to senior receiver Sergio Bailey II to put Eastern up 20-17.
On the opposite side of the ball, the RedHawks fell back asleep, only accumulating 62 total yards in the third quarter as the offensive line struggled to protect Gus Ragland. This issue accumulated in a major way with 6:09 to go in the third, when Ragland was hit as he threw by junior defensive end Maxx Crosby, causing a fumble deep in Miami territory. Roback and the Eagles offense, which had eclipsed the 400 total yard mark before the fourth quarter, stuck on the very next play to take a 10-point lead with one quarter to go.
“I felt like we didn’t really get a rhythm,” Ragland said. “A lot of that’s on me. There’s a couple more plays out there I think I could have made.”
That score was all it took for the Eagles to put the game away, as the Eastern defensive front continued to rush Ragland into poor throws. Crosby collected three of the Eagles four sacks on the night, making him the FBS leader in sacks.
“We went into the game knowing they had a good D-line,” Ragland said. “Some of those plays if you hang around back there and pat the ball one too many times, that’s all it takes for them to get home — I think our guys did a good job for the most part. I think in a couple of situations I could have been smarter.”
As a result of the pressure of Crosby as well as tight coverage of Eastern Michigan defensive backs, the RedHawks’ most dangerous weapon was stifled down the stretch — junior receiver James Gardner only reeled in one catch for 13 yards on the night. On average, Gardner racks up 81.7 receiving yards a game and has caught ten touchdown passes this season, but the Eagles made a point of slowing the Florida native down.
“We had a lot of stuff trying to get it to James, but they were basically playing a corner down low and a safety over the top,” Martin said. “They were definitely saying, ‘we’re going to try to double-team 81 and make it difficult to throw it to him.’”
Despite the minimized role of Gardner, the ‘Hawks were able to string together an eight play, 80-yard drive in the waning seconds of the night to cut the score to 27-24, but after a failed onside kick, the Eagles were able to run out the clock with a victory in hand.
Miami, now sitting at 4-7 on the year, is officially eliminated from any postseason appearance. According to Martin, however, the toughest part of Wednesday’s defeat was the senior class walking out of Yager Stadium for the last time following a loss.
“Feel bad for our seniors,” Martin said. “I feel bad for everyone to be honest with you. Disappointed with the outcome of the night — we’ve had a lot of games this year we could have won, we’ve had a lot of games we should have won and haven’t done it.”
The RedHawks will travel to Muncie, Indiana next Tuesday for the season finale to take on the Ball State Cardinals. The game will be televised on ESPN3 and can be heard on the Miami Sports Network.