By MIKE SMITH
Two weeks ago, the Illinois State Panthers scored twice in the final minutes to edge Miami’s RedHawks at home. Last Saturday, Miami scored two late touchdowns – including one on a virtual Hail Mary pass – but still came up seven points short in a loss to Western Kentucky.
With a game against rival University of Cincinnati on tap for this week, the RedHawks would . . .
Such an ending might set off a scramble resembling enthusiasm – if not scope -- at the start of the Oklahoma land rush. No Miami player was even in high school when Miami last possessed the Victory Bell, which goes to the MU-UC winner each year. Cincinnati, a Big 12 Conference expansion candidate, has won 11 straight in the oldest rivalry west of the Allegheny Mountains.
But MU is still one of the younger teams in FBS competition. Quarterback Billy Bahl is a true sophomore, backed up by a redshirt sophomore (coming off an injury), backed up by a true freshman at this point. After a rocky start to 2015, Bahl showed some improvement toward the end of season, and the RedHawks were more competitive. They won two of their last three outings.
The UC matchup is Miami’s last non-conference game for 2016. There’s been good and “not so much” for the RedHawks, but the bottom line is three losses.
► Bahl has continued to improve. Martin, in fact, sees an almost night and day change from where Bahl was last year at this time. At one point in 2015, he tossed seven interceptions in two games. He has thrown six touchdowns and just one in three games this season. The RedHawks rank fifth (MAC) in pass efficiency after three games.
► Reducing turnovers was a major focus for MU this season after finishing near the bottom of MAC teams in turnover margin last year. Turnovers are drive-stoppers and field position changers. Miami is thus far breaking even with a 0.00 turnover margin (+5/-5)
► The RedHawks are currently second (MAC) in first downs (23.3 per game).
► The RedHawks lost receiver Chuck Hudson for the year due to an injury in the Eastern Illinois game. Senior wideout Rokeem Williams missed last week due to injury, although Martin was hopeful of possibly getting him back for the UC game.
► MU is scoring an average of 20.7 ppg. That is tenth among 12 MAC teams and nearly five points behind Kent State. Of course, Bowling Green is 11th after a year in which nobody could seem to stop the Falcons, but that is another story.
► Miami is eighth among MAC teams in scoring defense (32.3 ppg). Combined with the offensive numbers, it’s not a good stat. Maybe the defensive numbers will improve come conference play, but the RedHawks will be facing a very capable offense (especially passing) this week at Cincinnati. MU is ranked sixth (MAC) in pass defense efficiency.
► Miami ranks last in kickoff coverage (27.5 yards per return) and has just one touchback. The RedHawks are also last in punting (31.7 yards per boot). Miami had significant turnover in the kicking game this year, and the youth shows.
► Sacks! Bahl was sacked seven times by Western Kentucky. The line is still relatively young and developing. Bahl may also be holding onto the ball longer this year in order to avoid turnovers. For that matter, opponents have displayed some pretty good coverage skills.
► Miami’s defense owns four sacks, ninth among MAC teams. Putting some pressure on UC’s quarterback would probably help the RedHawks secondary defense against a pass-oriented offense.
NOT SO SURE
► Martin values a balanced offense and bringing the run game up to speed is an ongoing process. Right now, Miami is at 131.7 ypg (11th MAC), which is a shade over last year’s final rushing mark (129.6 ypg).
On one hand, the run game has helped Miami with time of possession. Miami (35:54) ranks second behind Western Michigan (36:18) in time of possession. On the other hand, MU is 11th in red zone offense. Among its nine opportunities, it has fumbled once and lost the ball on downs once. It converted for a touchdown four times and made two of three field goal tries. Penalties, of course, don’t help.
AND SO …
The RedHawks have a sophomore quarterback, sophomore running backs and more youth in a lot of other places. Some inconsistency, therefore, is not all that surprising.
Cleaning up a few things here and there could help MU climb over the top, and the RedHawks would like nothing better this week than to finish on top against their area rival.