Opponent Outlook: Miami (Ohio) headed in right direction under Chuck Martin
The best story line of Notre Dame’s matchup with Miami of Ohio on Saturday is the return of Chuck Martin.
The former Irish offensive coordinator has gradually improved a Miami program that was winless in 2013. The RedHawks (2-2) have won 13 games since Martin became the head coach in Oxford before the 2014 season.
But can Miami pose a real threat to the Irish? We caught up with Brady Pfister of The Miami Student to analyze the RedHawks.
• How much did winning the last six regular season games last year change the direction of Miami’s program?
Pfister: “Midway through the 2016 regular season, nothing seemed to be going right for the RedHawks as their record stood at a disappointing 0-6. Many of those losses were games Miami very well could have won with three being decided by one score.
“However, when quarterback Gus Ragland replaced Billy Bahl under center, the trajectory of the team totally shifted in the opposite direction. Ragland and Co. rattled off six consecutive wins to reach bowl eligibility, a feat that hadn’t been accomplished in Oxford since 2010.
“The RedHawks went on to face Mississippi State in the St. Petersburg Bowl. Reaching a bowl game on its own was a significant milestone, but the opportunity to go up against an SEC opponent made it that much sweeter. Though Miami fell just short of victory over the Bulldogs, a renewed energy returned to campus surrounding Miami football.
“A team that could neither close out close matchups nor play with Power Five teams in the opening weeks of 2016 found their spark and the Miami community has taken notice. Two weeks ago when Cincinnati traveled north to take on Miami, Yager Stadium was as loud as it has been since Martin’s arrival on campus.”
• How has Chuck Martin attempted to rebuild the program at Miami? What has he emphasized as the program’s philosophy?
Pfister: “In the current world of college football, programs seem to give coaches 2-3 year windows to revamp a team. If the program has failed to reach conference titles, bowl games and other marks of success in that time span, a new coaching staff comes in. Miami has broken this trend with Martin, placing a lot of trust in his ability to recruit and develop players, and has seen it pay off over time.
“In Martin’s first two years in Oxford, the RedHawks won five games in total. However, after a tough first two years, the team finally broke through under Martin last year and is picking up momentum going forward.
“The culture that Martin has created at Miami is one that goes way beyond the X’s and O’s of the game. Martin has embraced the Miami Athletics motto of “Graduating Champions” by developing players who play for each other while also taking full advantage of the opportunity his players have to attend a well-regarded university like Miami. Martin is a realistic coach, fully aware of the tough competition among teams in the Mid-American Conference, yet still preaches the importance of competing and executing on and off the field.
“Schematically, Martin loves to control the time of possession on offense by dominating the trenches with the occasional deep ball down the field to keep the defensive backs on their toes. On defense, Martin has developed a staunch group of athletes proudly called “The Mob” who the embrace the culture of the program. Moving the ball on the RedHawk defense has proven to be difficult because of the way players embrace Martin’s philosophy of competing on every play.”
• Miami’s turnaround last season coincided with quarterback Gus Ragland returning from a torn ACL. Does the success of Miami’s offense depend on him above everyone else?
Pfister: “Gus Ragland on the surface appears to be the key cog of the RedHawks, yet there are many other pieces to the puzzle that gives this offense balance. Miami is a run-first team that loves to eat up clock, so running backs Alonzo Smith and Kenny Young are pivotal to the RedHawk attack that has rushed for 528 yards on the year.
“After a healthy dose of the run, Miami likes to give their receivers a chance to make big plays deep, specifically 6-foot-4 junior James Gardner. Though Gardner has been dealing with nagging injuries throughout the 2017 campaign, his rare combination of size and speed make him a handful for opposing defenses.
“However, the true engine of the Miami offense is the offensive line. The entire running game starts and ends with the big men up front. This was exemplified against Austin Peay when the O-line pushed around the Governors in the first half and went into halftime up 21-7. However, when the D-line of Austin Peay adjusted in the third quarter, Miami’s offense could not establish any sort of rushing attack and was held scoreless in that quarter.
“If the ‘Hawks O-line can get rolling, Miami will control the ball and put together long drives. But if the big men struggle, talented teams like Notre Dame can get ahead in a hurry.”
• Miami lost a rivalry game to Cincinnati by giving up an 11-point lead in the final 4:45 in the third game of the season. How did the RedHawks rebound to get back on track last week against Central Michigan?
Pfister: “The Cincinnati game was excruciating. It has been 12 years now since Miami knocked off the Bearcats, and for almost all of this year’s game, it looked like the RedHawks were finally going to bring home the Victory Bell. However, following a multitude of errors, Cincinnati roared back to defeat Miami with an interception for a touchdown on third-and-7 with under two minutes remaining.
“Last week’s game against Central Michigan was a defining game for the ‘Hawks, and the team responded in a major way. The RedHawks jumped all over the Chippewas early, grabbing a 14-0 lead thanks to the rushing and passing of Gus Ragland. After holding a 28-14 halftime lead, the offense controlled the ball while the RedHawk defense pitched a second half shutout leading the ‘Hawks to a 31-14 victory to get back in the win column and recover from Week 3 disappointment.”
• The RedHawks have allowed opposing offenses to score more than 14 points only twice this season. What is the strength of the Miami defense?
Pfister: “The RedHawk defense prides itself on making big plays at crucial times. Against Austin Peay, safety Tony Reid was a part of three second half turnovers, holding the Governor offense at bay. Twice against Cincinnati, the ‘Hawks intercepted Bearcat quarterback Hayden Moore deep in their own territory when it seemed certain UC was on their way to scoring.
“Running the ball against this Miami defense has proven to be difficult as well. Linebackers Junior McMullen and Brad Koenig lead the front seven which is only allowing 118.8 yards per game on the ground. Also look for cornerback Heath Harding to be disruptive in the running game, as he sheds blockers and finishes tackles at a high level.”