The Miami RedHawks enter Thursdays GoDaddy.com Bowl at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Montgomery , Alabama with a chance to make history. No NCAA Division I team has ever made a one-year transition from double-digit losses to double-digit wins. But after struggling through a 1-11 campaign in 2009, the RedHawks have recovered to post a 9-4 record thus far. A win over Middle Tennessee State Thursday would, therefore, give MU a piece of history.
Thomas Merriweather and the RedHawks running game have been rejuvinated late in the season.
WHICH REDHAWKS VERSUS WHICH BLUE RAIDERS
For a variety of reasons, Miamis chances are hard to gauge.
First, MTSU (6-6) has been a significantly different team over the last third of the season. Half its victories came during the stretch run as the Blue Raiders closed with three straight wins to become bowl eligible. The clincher was a 28-27 victory over Florida International, a team that recently pulled out a 34-32 win over MAC-member Toledo in the Little Caesars Bowl.
Second, like MTSU, Miami piled up most of its wins late in the year. Things didnt look nearly as promising during a few ugly losses (e.g. Missouri and Cincinnati ) early in the season. Which Miami team will show up?
Third, can MU bring its A game in spite of coaching changes and related issues?
A central figure in the RedHawks reversal of fortunes was head coach Michael Haywood, who took over in 2009 and laid the groundwork for success. But shortly after Miamis upset win over Northern Illinois in the MAC title game, Haywood accepted an offer to take over the head coaching position at Pitt of the Big East Conference. As Haywood moved into duties at his new gig, defensive backs coach Lance Guidry was appointed interim head coach. The remainder of the staff, except for Haywood and assistant head coach Bill Elias, also remained in Oxford as the RedHawks moved forward preparing for the bowl game.
The loss of Haywood would have brought its own challenges, but on the very day that Miami announced the hiring of new head coach Don Treadwell, Haywood was arrested in South Bend on a domestic violence charge. He was quickly fired by Pitt 17 days into his new position. A number of assistant coaches that would have gone with him suddenly fell into a limbo state unwelcome at Pitt and uncertain who Treadwell would be bringing in for his new staff.
Its difficult to gauge how much effect the unusual backdrop might have on a relatively young Miami team.
In some ways, the RedHawks played with their backs against the wall for the last five weeks of the season. A 34-13 loss to Ohio University Oct. 23 ultimately left them in a position where they had to win out and hope somebody could upset the defeat the Bobcats.
Miami took care of its end and finished the year with an impressive 23-3 win over a strong Temple team. Ohio kept winning, as well, and had a ticket to the MAC championship game in its hand until it was upset on the road by a Kent State team playing its final game under coach Doug Martin.
Although Miami finished 7-1 in league play, the RedHawks entered the championship tilt as a decisive underdog against a Northern Illinois team that was dominating opponents.
Miami came out fighting and when it ended, the emotional RedHawks were celebrating a title.
To understand why MU was particularly successful at the end of the season is to appreciate what Miami can bring to the table for the upcoming bowl game.
CHANGE IN PLANS
A key player in the stretch run was quarterback Austin Boucher. Until the Nov. 10 game at Bowling Green , Boucher was Plan B. But Sophomore Zac Dysert suffered a season-ending spleen injury late in a game won by Miami over BG with a field goal as time expired.
Coaches nursed the inexperienced Boucher through a 19-14 win at Akron the following week and then opened the playbook some for the critical finale against Temple .
It turned out to be one of the RedHawks finest performances of the season, topped only, perhaps, by the championship game thriller. Boucher completed 29-of-46 for 333 yards and a game-winning touchdown in the bright lights of a championship contest televised to a national audience.
While Dyserts numbers are good enough to rank him third among MAC quarterbacks in average passing yards and fourth in passing efficiency, Bouchers starts have been increasingly impressive. The lefty threw just one interception in his three starts and has shown an ability to scramble or at least buy time, as he did on a critical fourth down play that kept the RedHawks final drive against NIU alive.
Dysert remains unavailable, so the RedHawks hope Boucher can continue to shine. With the increased reps at practice and even more time to work the system, he should be ready to go.
BELATED RETURN OF THE GROUND GAME
So should the Miami line, which got healthy toward the end of the season. As it did, the RedHawks dormant running game suddenly came to life. Over the final three regular season games, Miami rushed for 156, 185, and 253 yards.
Senior running back Thomas Merriweather went over the century mark twice (136, 181) in the span, and although the RedHawks picked up a total of 99 net rushing yards against the rugged NIU defense, Merriweather gained an important 80 yards on 11 carries and scored two touchdowns. Having not played a game in a month, the MU running game could be even healthier than it was when the season began.
Establishing a healthy running game was part of the grand design from Day 1 of the Haywood regime, but the reality of Haywood Year 1 was that the line wasnt able to generate the necessary blocking. MU ranked dead last (MAC) in rushing yardage with 70 ypg. 16 yards below Bowling Green at No. 12.
Like Bowling Green, Miami passed a lot in 2009. Unlike Bowling Green, which went to the Humanitarian Bowl, Miami stayed home with but a single win to savor over the winter.
At first glance, it appears MU improved only marginally this season, moving up one spot while averaging 96.8 rushing ypg. But the RedHawks averaged 179 ypg over their last three contests.
STILL EMBRACING THE PASS
Miami still likes to pass the football. But being able to pass and being forced to pass are two different things. MU is happily evolving into the former.
Senior Armand Robinsons 90 catches for 981 yards leads a burgeoning receiver corps that includes talented freshman Nick Harwell.
Harwell, a speedster from Missouri City, Texas had a total of two catches for 15 yards through Miamis first five games. Since that time, hes caught 55 balls for 770 yards and five touchdowns. Other receivers, such as Chris Givens and Andy Cruse have also made key contributions.
With two talented quarterbacks and a bevy of quality receivers, the RedHawks finished third among MAC teams in passing yardage with an average of 250.3 ypg.
Defensively, the RedHawks have been inconsistent. Ugly moments, for the most part, came during non-conference games (Missouri, Cincinnati). Injuries to some key players (e.g. linebackers Ryan Kennedy and Luke Kelly) didnt help.
As with the offensive line, the defensive unit has gotten healthier, and play improved late in the year. The D yielded just three points to Temple and allowed Northern Illinois seemingly unstoppable running game just 92 yards in the championship tilt.
While the RedHawks prevailed, NIU was able to score on three relatively long passes (27, 39, 69) all in the vicinity of normally steady D. J. Brown. The sophomore can expect to see a number of balls thrown his way Thursday.
DASHER RETURNING TO FORM
Middle Tennessee quarterback Dwight Dasher is a dynamic playmaker who finally found his form in the closing weeks of the regular season. After throwing for 363 yards and contributing four touchdowns (two passing and two running) in a win over Southern Miss in last years New Orleans Bowl, Dasher missed the first four games of 2010 due to an NCAA suspension. When he did get back onto the field, the senior threw 12 interceptions in a five game span as the Blue Raiders went 1-4 during the period.
The 5-10, 202-pounder, however, completed 59.4 percent of his passes and threw just two interceptions during the season-ending, three-game win skein. With the extra rest leading up to the GoDaddy.com Bowl, Dasher has gained valuable time to rest a bothersome knee.
Like Miami, MTSUs offensive line caught the injury bug but got healthier coming down the stretch. Coincidentally, the team started winning.
Senior running back Phillip Tanner averaged 5.6 ypc this season and scored 11 of his 34 career TDs during the 2010 season. The Blue Raiders finished third in the Sunbelt Conference with an average of 178.5 ypg via the ground game.
Defensive end Jamari Lattimore is part of a unit that ranked third in scoring defense. The Blue Raiders were particularly effective in defending the pass, finishing atop the conference with an average yield of 190.8 ypg. Their 33 sacks was second in the league.
MTSUs run defense might be a little more suspect as the Blue Raiders finished seventh in the nine team league, allowing 193.8 ypg.
Special teams is typically a strong area for Middle Tennessee, and the Blue Raiders ranked first in kickoff returns (25.3 ypr), with freshman Ben Cunningham distinguishing himself in that area. MTSU was fourth in punt returns.
Another freshman, Josh Davis, averaged 43 yards per boot as a punter (2nd SBC), while Alan Gendreau hit 10-of-12 field goal attempts and 41 of 42 PATs.
Miami, meanwhile, got injured kicker Trevor Cook back after missing three midseason games with a knee injury. Cook came through with a game-winning field goal against Bowling Green and converted four of five FG attempts in a 19-14 victory over Akron.
No doubt, however, Miami spent some special time working on the kicking game during the weeks leading up to its bowl date. Protection issues contributed to a late slump. Cook made one of three field goals and missed an extra point in the regular season final against Temple.
The PAT might have been a non-factor that night, but an early PAT miss against NIU left the RedHawks trailing 21-20 until they pulled off a magical final drive to win the contest.
One other area that could figure significantly in the bowl game is turnovers. Miami was an incredible minus-24 while losing 11 of 12 games in 2009. That was more than double the 12th-ranked team. This season, MU finished third with a plus-8 mark.
Middle Tennessee, meanwhile, finished last in the SBC with a minus-16 mark. The lost turnovers included 13 fumbles and 20 interceptions. However, many of the interceptions occurred in the month following Dashers return to the field.