Midweek MACtion continues on Wednesday night, as Miami (Ohio) looks to keep its bowl hopes alive with a victory over the visiting Eastern Michigan Eagles. The bowl picture across the college football landscape is starting to clear, and with a couple of conferences expected to fall short on producing enough eligible teams, a 6-6 Miami (Ohio) squad could find its way into the postseason for the second year in a row under coach Chuck Martin. Eastern Michigan’s bowl hopes evaporated in last week’s turnover-filled 42-30 loss to Central Michigan. However, coach Chris Creighton’s team can still finish the year on a high note with a win over Miami, along with the finale against Bowling Green.
Miami (Ohio) was projected by some to win the MAC East this year, but Martin’s team has been derailed by an injury to starting quarterback Gus Ragland, as well as bad luck in losses. The RedHawks lost by four to Cincinnati after an interception was returned for a score with just over a minute left, was defeated by three at Kent State and lost by eight after Ragland was injured against Bowling Green. While Martin’s team hasn’t quite met preseason expectations, a win over Eastern Michigan and a victory against Ball State in the finale would get this team to six wins for the second year in a row.
Eastern Michigan is one of the toughest jobs in college football, but this program is headed in the right direction under Creighton. The Eagles went 3-21 in Creighton’s first two years in Ypsilanti but finished 7-6 with the program’s first bowl trip since 1987 last season. While Eastern Michigan’s record (3-7) is a setback, this team has lost all seven of its games by 12 points or less.
Miami holds an 18-4 series edge over Eastern Michigan. The RedHawks have claimed nine in a row over the Eagles. Eastern Michigan hasn’t won in Oxford since 1993.
Eastern Michigan at Miami (Ohio)
Kickoff: Wednesday, Nov. 15 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Miami (Ohio) -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Eastern Michigan’s Passing Attack
Led by senior quarterback Brogan Roback, Eastern Michigan’s passing game ranks as one of the best in the MAC. The Eagles are third in the conference, averaging 269.5 yards a game this season. Roback is the catalyst for this offense and should be in the mix for All-MAC honors this December, as he’s passed for 2,546 yards and 16 scores through 10 starts in 2017. Additionally, Roback is completing 60.6 percent of his throws and has eclipsed 300 yards three times in MAC play. Helping Roback’s cause on the outside is a deep group of receivers, with Sergio Bailey (47 catches) and Antoine Porter (40) the primary targets. Johnnie Niupalau (27), Mathew Sexton (22) and Jaron Johnson (22) are a few other receivers for Roback to target on Wednesday night.
While Roback is one of the MAC’s top quarterbacks and hasn’t had trouble piling up yardage, Eastern Michigan is only seventh in the MAC in scoring (25.2 ppg). Turnovers and the inability to convert third downs are two reasons for that total, but the rushing attack is also worth mentioning. The Eagles only average 3.4 yards per rush and have managed just 10 rushing scores this year. Creighton's offense is 11th in the MAC in rushing attempts, but with a sluggish ground game, the hopes of a road win on Wednesday night are going to rest on Roback's right arm.
Miami’s defense has been one of the toughest in the MAC against the pass, so this unit figures to give Roback some trouble on Wednesday night. The RedHawks are led by a veteran secondary, with two seniors – safety Tony Reid and cornerback Heath Harding – leading the way. Miami ranks fourth in the MAC in pass efficiency defense and no opponent has managed to eclipse 300 passing yards against this secondary. Additionally, the RedHawks showed signs of life in the trenches last week, as the pass rush registered six sacks against Akron. Through 10 games, Miami is only giving up 25.5 points a game.
Will Roback find ways to consistently push the ball downfield against Miami’s secondary? Or will the RedHawks keep Roback in long-yardage situations and contain Eastern Michigan’s offense on third downs?
2. Gus Ragland’s Return and Miami’s Offense
After sitting out three games due to an injury suffered against Bowling Green, Ragland made his return to the Miami lineup in last week’s win over Akron. The junior had to knock off a little rust but finished the night by connecting on 17 of 30 throws for 235 yards and three touchdowns. Ragland tossed two picks but also added 21 rushing yards on three carries.
With a game under his belt, and presumably healthier with another week to heal, expect Ragland to be sharp versus Eastern Michigan. But the Eagles will present some challenges for Martin’s offense. Eastern Michigan ranks third in the MAC with 24 sacks generated and is second in scoring defense, limiting opponents to just 22.5 points a game. The Eagles are allowing 5.14 yards per play but won’t give up much in the way of big gains. Eastern Michigan has allowed only eight plays of 40 yards or more in 2017. This unit is also fifth in the MAC in pass efficiency defense and has surrendered only 13 scores via the air in 2017.
In addition to Ragland, Miami boasts one of the MAC’s top receivers in junior James Gardner (44 catches for 886 yards and 10 scores), along with tight end Ryan Smith (30). The ground game is in good hands with Kenny Young and Alonzo Smith, who have combined for 1,291 rushing yards this season. Protecting Ragland will be critical against Eastern Michigan’s pass rush, and so far in MAC play, the RedHawks have allowed only six sacks. If Miami protects Ragland, with Gardner and Young delivering a couple of big plays (something this offense has struggled to do in 2017), the Eagles will face an uphill battle in trying to keep this offense in check.
Considering both teams have lost most of their games in close fashion, Wednesday night’s matchup should be decided by a couple of points. And with a tight game expected, one factor could make a big difference on the scoreboard: Turnovers. Unfortunately both teams, this area has been problematic all year.
Miami checks in ninth in the MAC with a minus-four margin, while Eastern Michigan is tied for 10th in the conference at minus-five. The Eagles have lost 19 turnovers, compared to 16 from the RedHawks. These numbers don’t look any better when only conference games are included, as both teams are again near the bottom of the MAC.
Interestingly enough, Miami has been minus-two in turnover margin in four out of their last six games this season. Eastern Michigan has not posted a margin higher than plus-one this season and went minus-four in last week’s loss to Central Michigan.
As simple as it sounds, whichever team does a better job of taking care of the ball and limiting the giveaways on offense is probably going to win this game.
Eastern Michigan’s bad luck in close games will end at some point, but Miami should be motivated with a bowl trip still a possibility. This matchup features two of the MAC’s top quarterbacks, and Roback and Ragland should combine for their share of fireworks. These two teams are relatively even on the stat sheet for defense, so this one will likely come down to whichever offense is able to generate a few big plays and avoid the turnover bug. The guess here is Ragland outduels Roback, as Miami improves to 5-6 and keeps its bowl hopes alive for another week.
Prediction: Miami (Ohio) 31, Eastern Michigan 24
(Gus Ragland photo courtesy of www.miamiredhawks.com)