Miami (Ohio) hopes to close games in ’18
Editor’s note: This is the first part of a 12-part series previewing Marshall University football opponents in the 2018 season.
By GRANT TRAYLOR
HUNTINGTON - Miami (Ohio) football coach Chuck Martin might invest in blinders for his team this offseason.
For Martin, it is important that his team full of returning talent looks forward instead of backward.
Last season, Miami (Ohio) finished with a disappointing 5-7 campaign, due in large part to the fact that the RedHawks could not find a way to win close games.
Miami (Ohio) was 0-5 in one-possession games, turning what should/could have been an eight-win season or better into a campaign that finished without a bowl game.
That rhetoric to the 2017 season started in the first week of the season at Marshall when the RedHawks statistically were superior to the Thundering Herd, but fell 31-26 in the road opener, based off a pair of first-half kickoff returns for touchdowns by the Herd’s Keion Davis.
Without those returns, Miami (Ohio) likely leaves Huntington with a win and the dynamic of the season takes on a different tone from the start.
If there is good news about how last season played out is that the RedHawks will feature a hungry bunch of veteran players eager to get that taste out of their mouths.
Quarterback Gus Ragland returns, as does top vertical threat James Gardner, which will help the passing game. Ragland threw for 2,032 yards and 19 touchdowns with just seven interceptions on the season for Martin’s crew, which relies heavily on the run.
When Ragland and the RedHawks needed a big play, they called on Gardner, who hauled in 47 catches for 927 yards and 11 touchdowns. Still, Gardner needs to improve on his catch percentage, as he caught just 51 percent of his 92 targets on the year.
While that duo will be a down-field threat, the offense will stick to Martin’s game plan, which is to use the rushing attack to churn out first downs and slow a game down.
Miami returns 57 of its 60 starts along the offensive front, led by tackle Jordan Rigg and guard Sam McCollum, who are expected to anchor the left side of the line.
That group will be opening holes for a talented tandem on Kenny Young and Alonzo Smith, who nearly split carries down the middle a year ago. Young finished with 781 yards on 145 carries with six touchdowns while Smith had 660 yards on 144 carries and two scores.
The right side of the offensive line needs to be more steady after a year when it played musical chairs and Ragland will have to develop new possession receivers that help take pressure off of Gardner to keep the offense moving in the right direction.
If the offense can do its part, the defense certainly returns the talent to keep the RedHawks in any game.
Last season’s defense was impressive in the red zone and good against the pass, led by cornerback Deondre Daniels and safety Josh Allen, both of whom are back. In fact, all four players who started in the secondary return, if adding in cornerback Cedric Asseh and safety Daryus Thompson.
A key for the defense will be limiting big running plays, which was an issue, at times, last season.
Part of those troubles last season were health issues at the linebacker spot, so if Miami (Ohio) can avoid the injury bug, it should be more consistent against the run.
Defensive end Doug Costin is a returning play maker for the front, along with defensive tackle Nate Trawick.
At the second level, outside linebackers Brad Koenig and De’Andrew Montgomery bring back plenty of play making ability as well. Koenig was the team’s best play maker in space (65 solo tackles), and will need to continue that trend to avoid the big ground gains for the opposition.
Special teams has not been a strong point for the RedHawks, dating back to 2016 and Miami (Ohio) needs to improve the game’s third phase if it wants to change that 0-5 record in one-possession contests.
Punter Kyle Kramer averaged 40.5 yards per punt and kicker Sam Sloman was 9-of-11 on the season with five field goals coming from 40-plus yards.
Still, coverage units need to not give up big returns (see: Marshall game) and return units need to limit mistakes for the RedHawks to make a turn.
For the second-straight year, Miami (Ohio) opens the season with Marshall, although this one will be in the friendly confines of Yager Stadium on Sept. 1.
That is the first of four contests against teams projected in the top-70 nationally in 2018, meaning the RedHawks better shore up their issues in close games or another disappointing season could be on the horizon.