Austin Boucher fires a pass downfield during Miami's 35-21 win over Middle Tennessee Thursday in the GoDaddy.com Bowl. Below 1, Jerrell Wedge and Evan Harris make a stop. Below 2, Dayonne Nunley begins an interception return for a TD. Left, Interim Head Coach Lance Guidry hoists the bowl trophy. Bottom left, a helmet is raised in celebration after the win. Photos by Mike Smith.
MOBILE, AL - Showing both composure and resolve, the Miami RedHawks played their way into a piece of NCAA history Thursday night with a 35-21 win over Middle Tennessee State at Ladd Peebles Stadium in the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
Coming off a 1-11 season in 2009, MU raised its 2010 record to 10-4, thus becoming the first team in NCAA football bowl subdivision history to go from double digit losses to double digit wins in back to back seasons.
That achievement is even more remarkable given that Miami: (1) Used a redshirt freshman quarterback who got his first start with two games remaining in the regular season.(2) Played under an interim head coach. (3) Prepared under a group of assistant coaches who must now turn their attention to finding jobs.
Hats off to the coaches. They did a great job preparing the kids. interim head coach Lance Guidry said of the staff. Guidry took over after the departure of Mike Haywood, who took a job at Pitt but was fired 17 days later after an arrest on a domestic violence charge related to an incident in South Bend, Indiana.
TURNOVER FACTOR Even considering Miami is a school with a rich football tradition, 2010 will long be remembered as a special season a season in which a team learned how to win.
To get past a dangerous MTSU team that turned the corner late in the season, Miami benefitted from five Blue Raider turnovers.
Last season, MU finished with an astoundingly poor turnover margin of minus-24. This year, the RedHawks were a plus eight coming into the bowl game. Middle Tennessee, on the other hand, had the worst turnover margin (-16) among NCAA bowl subdivision teams in 2010.
Weve been good since Ive been here protecting the football. We were bad this year, Blue Raiders coach Rick Stockstill said, adding that cleaning up the problem will be a point of emphasis in preparations for the 2011 campaign.
The turnover problem had improved over the final month of the season, and MTSU picked up three critical wins down the stretch to become bowl eligible. But with a determined RedHawks defense applying pressure, Middle Tennessee turned the ball over five times Thursday four after the first half concluded with the teams knotted at 14-all.
NUNLEY PICK SPARKS MU Freshman Dayonne Nunley opened the turnover floodgates with an interception and 62-yard return for a score less than two minutes into the third quarter. Nunley, a freshman, entered the game tied with linebacker Evan Harris for the team lead in interceptions. Both picked up one more Thursday night to give them six for the season.
A successful PAT by Trevor Cook gave Miami its first lead of the contest at 21-14, but the Blue Raiders struck back two plays into their ensuing drive when Phillip Tanner bounced off a collection of would-be tacklers and raced down the sideline to paydirt on a 54-yard play at 12:32.
The Blue Raiders actually had a golden opportunity to take the lead moments later when Kevin Brown picked off an Austin Boucher aerial. Just as quickly, however, MTSU gave it back as senior safety Jordan Gafford stripped the ball from receiver Malcolm Beyah. Nunley recovered the loose ball to end the ever-so-brief threat
Two possessions later, Middle Tennessee drove to the Miami 42, but running back Tanner was stuffed on a fourth-and-one run up the middle.
TAKING THE LEAD DeMarco Paynes 44-yard punt return set MU up at the Blue Raiders 30-yard line late in the period. Five plays later, Boucher connected with Chris Givens on a 17-yard scoring strike.
Harris interception and 23-yard return on the first play of the fourth quarter put MU in business again this time at the MTSU 17, but the Red and White gained just two yards. Cook came on to kick a field goal, but that boot was blocked by Derrick Upshaw.
Two sacks and an incompletion forced the Blue Raiders to punt before MU put together its longest scoring drive of the night. Merriweather carried six times for 35 yards on an 11-play drive covering 71 yards. Boucher bought some extra time with his feet before threading a pass in to Nick Harwell to cover the final five yards. Cooks PAT gave the RedHawks a 35-21 lead with 5:25 left.
Middle Tennessee had two more possessions, but each ended in an interception, first by D. J. Brown and then by Pat Hinkel.
Dasher completed 18-of-29 for 162 yards, with four interceptions on the night. Boucher connected on 22-of-35 with two touchdowns and two interceptions. One of the INTs was a pick by Kevin Brown which ricocheted off several players. Blue Raiders linemen tipped a number of Boucher passes on the night, and according to MTSU standout Jamari Lattimore, the tips were more than luck.
We worked on (getting out hands up) throughout the practices we had, he said, noting Boucher is undersized for the quarterback position.
From the Miami sideline, Guidry said he has come to see more than a 6-1, 202-pound QB.,Hes a competitor. Hes a winner, said Guidry, who after the game laid claim to Miamis all-time best winning percentage. Im 1-0, grinned the interim head coach.
Using a no-huddle offense that initially seemed to bother the RedHawks, MTSU drew first blood in the contest with an 18-yard TD run by Phillip Tanner.
Miami, however, bounced back quickly. Boucher hit Armand Robinson with a pass in the right flat, and the senior raced 70 yards down the sideline before he was finally dragged down. Merriweather scored on the next play.
DASHER A CHALLENGE Middle Tennessee came up with a big play of its own on the next possession. Six plays into the drive, Dasher broke loose up the middle for a 49-yard touchdown. The senior finished with 119 rushing yards on 17 carries. Overall, the Blue Raiders picked up 241 yards on the ground.
Hes so athletic. The film didnt give him as much credit as what we saw tonight, Guidry said.
A 21-yard run by Robinson and Harwells 40-yard reception were the big plays in a five-play, 80-yard drive that allowed MU to tie the game. Merriweather again went in from three yards out for the only score of the second quarter at 13:11.
We just couldnt capitalize on the momentum we created, said Stockstill, who was disappointed but still proud of the Blue Raiders program. Were doing things the right way, he said afterward. Weve been to three bowl games in five years.
I thought we played hard for four quarters (although) we didnt play perfect by any means, Guidry said of his squad. For all the kids, this has been so hard. They have been on a real roller coaster. Its just a blessing that we came out on top.