The midweek MACtion portion of college football’s schedule officially kicks off on Halloween night, as Miami travels less than 200 miles to Athens to take on Ohio. While both teams should have plenty of incentive in the Battle of the Bricks rivalry, this matchup isn’t quite as appealing as it appeared to be back in the preseason. Before the season started, this Oct. 31 showdown was projected by most to decide the winner of the MAC’s East Division. However, the RedHawks are struggling to meet preseason expectations at 3-5 overall, while the Bobcats head into the final stretch as the favorite to make it to Detroit to play for the conference title on Dec. 2.
Miami coach Chuck Martin inherited a significant rebuilding project when he took over the program prior to the 2014 campaign. Martin was a highly regarded hire after spending time as a head coach at Grand Valley State, along with a stint at Notre Dame as the program’s offensive coordinator. After a 5-19 start through the first two seasons, Martin guided Miami to a 6-7 record last year, which included six consecutive victories to reach the St. Petersburg Bowl. With 16 returning starters and the development of quarterback Gus Ragland, the RedHawks were the pick by some to win the MAC East. But things haven’t gone according to plan for Martin. Ragland suffered an injury against Bowling Green on Oct. 7 and has missed the last two games. Additionally, untimely turnovers have been a problem and factored into close losses (four by eight points or less).
While Miami is hoping to put together a run in November to reach a bowl game, Ohio has its sights set on another MAC East title. Under coach Frank Solich, the Bobcats have been of the league’s most consistent teams. This program has just one losing record over the last 11 seasons and has not finished lower than third in the East since 2007. Additionally, Ohio has claimed the division title four times since 2006 and nearly knocked off Western Michigan (29-23) in last season’s game. This year’s team is off to a 6-2 start, with the only losses coming at Purdue (44-21) and Central Michigan (26-23).
Miami leads the all-time series 52-39-2. However, Ohio has won the last four meetings against the RedHawks.
Miami, Ohio at Ohio
Kickoff: Tuesday, Oct. 31 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Three Things to Watch
1. Miami’s Quarterback Situation
Will Gus Ragland make his return to the lineup on Tuesday night? The junior threw for 1,398 yards and 12 touchdowns through the first six games before suffering a lower-body injury against Bowling Green. With Ragland sidelined, Miami stumbled against the Falcons (37-29), lost to a struggling Kent State team (17-14) and defeated Buffalo (24-14) on Oct. 21. When healthy, Ragland is one of the MAC’s top quarterbacks and can ignite an offense averaging only 24.5 points in conference action this season. If Ragland can’t go, fellow junior Billy Bahl will make his third start of the season. Bahl has 14 career starts under his belt but has struggled through his three appearances in 2017. The junior is completing 50 percent of his passes for 470 yards, two touchdowns and two picks. Ragland is also a better runner, which adds a dimension to an offense that has had some issues (16 sacks allowed) protecting the quarterback.
In order for Miami to pull off the upset, it needs a healthy Ragland taking snaps under center. Is the extra time off from the last contest going to be enough for Ragland to make his return? Or will the RedHawks hand the keys to Bahl for another start?
2. Ohio’s Rushing Attack
It’s no secret Solich’s offense is going to pound the rock on Tuesday night. Ohio leads the MAC with an average of 243.4 yards per game and ranks fourth in the conference with 344 attempts. Additionally, the Bobcats have reached the end zone 28 times on the ground, which ranks among the best in the nation.
Junior A.J. Ouellette missed nearly all of last season due to injury but hasn’t showed any rust in his return to the lineup. The junior running back leads the offense with 747 yards and averages a healthy 6.23 yards per carry. He’s supported by Dorian Brown (443 yards), and quarterback Nathan Rourke (499 yards) as secondary options in the ground attack. Rourke replaced Quinton Maxwell as the team’s starter under center following the loss to Purdue and has taken the first snap in each of the last six games. Rourke hasn’t passed for more than 200 yards in a start but has rushed for over 100 yards in three out of his last four contests.
Miami will counter Ohio’s rushing attack with a front seven that ranks fifth in the MAC against the run. The RedHawks are allowing 164.9 yards per game on the ground but just 4.2 yards per carry in MAC games. Linebacker Brad Koenig leads the way for Martin’s defense with 63 stops, and Junior McMullen (missed three games due to injury) has recorded 25. Koenig (seven tackles for a loss) has been active around the line of scrimmage, but the RedHawks have only recorded 38 tackles for a loss this year. This unit needs to create more havoc behind the offensive line and force Ohio into obvious passing downs.
Ouellette and Rourke have led Ohio’s offense to back-to-back performances of at least 300 rushing yards. Can this dynamic duo do it again? Or will Miami’s defense have success winning the battle up front and force Rourke to take to the air?
3. Ohio’s Defense
Defense is usually a strength for Ohio under Solich, and this unit has allowed only 19.8 points per game and 4.4 yards per play through four MAC contests. Through eight overall matchups, the Bobcats rank second in the conference with 21 sacks, third with 55 tackles for a loss and have surrendered only three plays of 40 or more yards. And in last year’s matchup against Miami – albeit before the RedHawks’ offense took flight under Ragland – the Bobcats limited this unit to just seven points and 238 total yards.
Linebacker Quentin Poling should be a lock for first-team All-MAC honors at the end of 2017, and the senior heads into Tuesday night’s matchup with 70 tackles, three forced fumbles, two pass breakups and 1.5 sacks. Poling is the leader for a unit that doesn’t have many glaring weaknesses. However, the Bobcats rank sixth in the MAC in pass efficiency defense and 15 of the 24 touchdowns allowed by this group came via the pass.
Even if Ragland starts for Miami, the RedHawks need to establish some balance and protect up front. That could be a challenge versus Ohio, especially with Poling and linemen Trent Smart, Andrew Payne and Cleon Aloese attacking the offensive line. Miami’s rushing attack features two talented rushers in Kenny Young (566 yards) and Alonzo Smith (463), but the offense is averaging only 3.82 yards per rush behind a line off to an uneven start. On the outside, Miami has one of the MAC’s better receiving corps. James Gardner (32), Jared Murphy (20) and Sam Martin (13) are a good trio at receiver, with tight end Ryan Smith (23) attacking the middle of the field. If Ragland or Bahl has time to throw, there are plays to be made against an Ohio secondary that ranks sixth in the MAC in pass efficiency defense.
Miami has managed only 10 points in the last two meetings against Ohio’s defense. On paper, this matchup favors the Bobcats once again, especially if this unit can create pressure on Ragland or Bahl and slow down the Young-Smith tandem at running back. Can Martin put together a gameplan that allows for Miami to have its best showing against Ohio in three seasons?
With Ragland’s status up in the air, this is a hard game to get a read on. However, even if Ragland plays, it will be a tough assignment for the RedHawks to win in Athens. Ohio’s rushing attack has been mashing opponents in recent weeks, and Rourke hasn’t needed to take on too heavy of a workload through the air with a dominant ground game and defense. Expect that formula to be used once again for the Bobcats. Rourke and Ouellette will pound away at Miami’s front seven, and Ohio’s defense comes up with key stops in the second half to seal the victory. And most importantly, a win over Miami would help Solich’s team cross off another hurdle in its quest to earn another MAC East title and a trip to Detroit in early December.
Prediction: Ohio 31, Miami, Ohio 20
(Quentin Poling photo courtesy of Daniel Kubus/Ohio Athletics; Gus Ragland photo courtesy of www.miamiredhawks.com)