5th and Goal College Football Tour - A Trip to Visit a MAC Favorite
by Aaron Lynn
As great as the sport of college football can be and is, there are still many fans who complain about the lack of parity at the highest level of the sport. While there have never been the same four teams in any given Playoff, the complaint is still a legitimate one considering that just five different teams have won a CFP title and only six teams have competed in a championship game during the eight-year span of the current College Football Playoff format.
It’s easy to get lost in what has become an all-encompassing focus on the Playoff, especially for fans of the elite few that have national title aspirations on a yearly basis. However, “few” becomes the operative word considering there are dozens of other programs pursuing goals of their own.
Those teams, often found within the “Group of 5” conferences, are a huge part of what makes college football so beautiful. Regional rivalries, traditions, underdogs, hidden talent (the best wide receiver in the NFL, Cooper Kupp, played for FCS Eastern Washington), and the pursuit of conference titles and bowl appearances make up the very heartbeat of college football.
The Miami RedHawks of the Mid-American Conference (MAC) fall into this category. For those looking for more parity in college football, look no further than the MAC, a conference that has sent ten different teams to its conference championship game over the last five seasons. The RedHawks won the MAC Championship in 2019 and last year were just a two-point conversion away in the season finale from winning the East Division and reaching another title game in Detroit.
We had an opportunity to visit the RedHawks in Oxford as they opened their home schedule with a date against Robert Morris from the FCS ranks. While this particular matchup against the Colonials wasn’t necessarily a “high profile” game, the timing of the contest made it a very important game for the RedHawks. Miami entered their Week 2 matchup following a road opener against a very talented and physical Kentucky program (ranked #7 in the 5th and Goal Top 25 this week). They performed admirably and played the Wildcats much closer than the 37-13 final score might appear. However, they sustained key injuries towards the end of the game, losing starting quarterback Brett Gabbert, left tackle Sam Vaughan, and tight end Jack Coldiron.
Those losses are significant. Gabbert, the brother of Tom Brady’s current backup Blaine Gabbert, is considered by many to be the top quarterback in the MAC and is expected to miss several weeks, and Vaughan is done for the season. The loss of Gabbert meant that red-shirt freshman Aveon Smith would make the first start of his career. Thus, the timing of the Robert Morris game was important, since Smith could get his first real experience against the Colonials instead of rival Cincinnati next week.
Smith performed well, connecting on 14 of his 22 passes for 155 yards and three touchdowns. While he did throw an interception, he bounced back quickly and also added 38 rush yards on just four carries. Obviously, the Cincinnati defense, the unit that propelled the Bearcats to a College Football Playoff appearance last season, will be significantly better than the defense of Robert Morris. However, Smith’s performance in his first start should be a confidence builder and the experience gained could prove to be key depending on how long Smith has the reins heading into conference play.
We asked Smith about some of the lessons he learned in his first start. “Knowing the defense, pre-snap… different disguises and things that they were doing, I feel like next week I should do a better job of picking up on that.” Smith added, “[I felt] more composed and more decisive with my decisions.] He also pointed out that it had essentially been three years since he had taken the field as the starting quarterback after seeing limited time in 2020 and 2021.
In his opening statement in the post-game press conference, Coach Martin was highly complementary and bullish on Smith leading the team going forward. “AV’s confidence and decision making were excellent in his first start. When he threw the interception the team rallied around him and he reacted well.” When asked about who on the team needs to step up with Gabbert out, he reiterated that it must be a team effort to achieve success and that each player must be at their very best while remaining within the game plan.
Even with some of the injury concerns, the road ahead is bright for the RedHawks. They have a great opportunity to win a MAC East title and will face Kent State on October 8. The Golden Flashes appear to be the RedHawk’s main competitor in the division and must travel to Oxford. Yager Stadium has proven to be a distinct advantage for the RedHawks, who have won 15 straight home games. That impressive win streak is actually the fourth-longest of all 131 FBS teams behind only Clemson (35), Cincinnati (28), and Oregon (20). You have to go all the way back to 2018 when the Western Michigan Broncos claimed a narrow 40-39 victory to find the last Miami home loss.
The RedHawks must still navigate two challenging non-conference opponents in Cincinnati and Northwestern. It is critical that Miami is able to stay healthy through those two matchups. The RedHawks benefit from belonging to the weaker of the two divisions in the MAC. If they stay healthy and get Gabbert back, they should be well positioned for a strong run through the MAC and could very well find themselves playing for the conference title in Detroit at the end of the season.
Hippenhammer (0) has 11 catches for 137 yards and 2 touchdowns in the first two games of the season for the RedHawks. (Photo Courtesy of Miami Athletics)
One of the players who stepped up Saturday night was Mac Hippenhammer. Mac was Smith’s go-to wide receiver in the red zone, and after a 7 catch, 85 yard performance in the opener against Kentucky, the Penn State transfer added a pair of touchdowns against the Colonials and was named the 5th and Goal Player of the Game. Kevin Davis and Kenny Tracy each broke off a run of 20 yards or longer and the RedHawks reached over 200 yards on the ground, a mark the team hit three times last season.
Only Toledo allowed fewer points scored in the MAC last season than Miami, although the RedHawks bring back just three of their top 13 tacklers from last season. After giving up a big trick play to a Robert Morris tight end which eventually set up an early touchdown, the defense settled in and shut down the Colonial offense, picking up a pair of interceptions along the way. One was from Ryan McWood who is competing in his sixth year in the program and the other was from John Saunders Jr. who also had a key pass breakup on a play that would have otherwise resulted in a Robert Morris score. Saunders mentioned that keeping everything “inside and in front” was the key to the defense’s success and also brought up the experience that was gained from the trip to Lexington to begin the season.