Success can be the culmination of many things – including some failure along the way.
The Miami RedHawks football senior class, though not large, has experienced more than its share of failure – at least in terms of wins and losses. When Tuesday night arrives, however, that group hopes to add another chapter to what could be a very successful finish to their careers.
It will be senior night in Oxford as the RedHawks host Ball State. The Cardinals (4-7, 1-6 MAC) have lost four straight and six of their last seven, but a win in the finale would be a positive jump moving forward.
Miami, on the other hand, is 5-6 overall (5-2 MAC). A RedHawks win would:
1. Even the season mark at 6-6. It would be historical in that no FBS team has ever lost the first six games and won the remaining six.
2. Make the RedHawks bowl eligible, with a good chance of making it to a bowl game.
3. Give a senior class that has endured through adversity a special night.
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An epic rebuild was in order, and there would be no magic waving of the clipboard to suddenly conjure up winning seasons. However, Chuck Martin, who reportedly took a pay cut to move from his job as Notre Dame offensive coordinator to become Miami RedHawks head coach, believed in potential – both his own and that of the historically proud program.
Martin and his staff worked the recruiting trails hard, focusing on getting bigger, faster and stronger. Those things are easy to say, but somewhat harder to recruit and/or develop. He also prioritized getting quality linemen to beef up what had been an ongoing problem. It’s an area that doesn’t usually get fixed overnight.
The RedHawks went 2-10 in 2014 and followed with a 3-9 record last year. With a still very young team, there was guarded optimism for 2014, but a series of injuries – particularly at quarterback – hit the program.
That forced MU into using true freshman Noah Wezensky for the second half against OU and all of the following week at Akron. Miami lost both.
The RedHawks had been competitive in almost every game, including a season-opening 45-21 loss at Iowa. But they lost the home opener against Eastern Illinois, 21-17, and followed that with seven-point setbacks against Western Kentucky and area rival Cincinnati. Ohio was up 10-7 until a Bobcat defensive touchdown inside the final two minutes.
At 0-6 after losing to Akron, three things stood out about Miami:
1. The RedHawks had too many costly turnovers.
2. MU was killing its drives and helping opponent drives with a cascade of penalties.
3. Confidence issues and doubt seemed to creep into the mix, particularly late in games.
Much of that has changed, and it started in Week 7. Ragland had willed/worked his way back enough to get cleared for play. He got the start against Kent State and pulled out the RedHawks first victory of 2016 with the help of a late 55-yard swing pass TD to Kenny Young.
Getting the first win may have been the most difficult, because things started to fall in place after that.
The RedHawks got another dose of confidence the following week when they won at Bowling Green, 40-27. Three more victories followed and the team that couldn’t get over the hump was winning every week – home or away, day or night, MAC East or MAC West.
“We’ve been on a nice roll,” Martin said recently. “The kids have been playing hard all year, but they’re playing smarter (lately). We’re doing the things that good teams do as far as not turning the ball over and not giving up big plays.”
At the same time, Miami is getting some chunk plays. Young has ripped off several long runs or pass receptions at key moments. Jared Murphy has also turned in some big receptions, especially during the injury absence of James Garner. Alonzo Smith and Ragland are both moving the chains.
Even during the losing streak, Martin was getting some positive feedback. “The opposition kept telling us how much better we were, but we lost.”
As for Martin, he noted, “I really felt like we were right on the cusp of being a good football team. … Maybe we were a little closer than the rest of the world thought we were.”
Focus on getting that first win has only recently turned into thoughts about possibly going to a bowl game.
Perhaps even less mentioned is the fact that a Miami win Tuesday would give the RedHawks a share of the MAC East title. Ohio hosts Akron at the same time Miami plays Ball State. Even if MU wins, it would need Akron to upset Ohio in Athens for the RedHawks to reach the MAC Championship tilt Dec. 2.
“It’s awesome for our kids, particularly our seniors, who have been through a ton,” said Martin, who has been around long enough to know it all comes down to performance. “We’re just trying to stay focused on what we’ve been doing, like everybody knows you’ve got to do.”
►The Cardinals have one of the MAC’s top rushers in sophomore James Gilbert (5-8, 194). He owns 1,215 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on 233 carries. Gilbert ran off five straight games with over 100 yards rushing, but was held to 54 yards at Eastern Michigan and then 19 yards last week at Toledo. BSU ranks third among MAC teams in rushing yards per game (217.5 ypg). It will face a Miami defense that is second in the league in rushing defense (130.1 ypg) and first in total defense (347.5 ypg)
► Sophomore quarterback Riley Neal (6-6, 220) has completed 61.1 percent of his passes (22/260) with 12 TDs and 11 interceptions this year. He was good on 33 of 49 for 260 yards and two TDs in his last outing (against Toledo).
► Senior KeVonn Mabon (6-2, 215) tops the Cardinals in receptions (74) and yards (850). He has two receiving touchdowns. Damon Hazelton Jr. leads the squad with four TD catches. He has caught 50 balls for 490 yards.
► Except for Western Michigan and Toledo, Ball State has not lost a conference game by more than 10 points.
► Sean Wiggins is the top Cardinal tackler (105 stops) and also has 6.0 tfl. Aaron Taylor owns 80 tackles with a team-best 10.5 tfl, while Josua Posley owns 10.0 tfl. Junior DE Anthony Winbush leads the way with six sacks – two in each of three games.
► Ball State has won the last three meetings against Miami, with the most recent taking place in 2013. The two schools recently agreed to begin playing for the “Red Bird Rivalry” trophy in 2017.