Miami Wins the MAC
by Aaron Lynn
December 4, 2023
The famous adage of “defense wins championships” rang true for Miami from Detroit in the 2023 MAC Championship Game. The RedHawks led the MAC in nearly every defensive category in the conference this season and proved their unbreakable will by holding the ever-dangerous quarterback Dequan Finn and the Toledo offense to just 14 points in a 23-14 victory. Miami’s defense paved the way to Detroit and their special teams, in particular, guided the RedHawks to their second MAC championship in the last five years under head coach Chuck Martin.
Martin doesn’t pay attention to analytics. Many coaches would go for a 4th and 2 from the opponent 43 yard line in the first quarter, but not Martin. And, why should he? Punter Alec Bevelhimer has been superb all season long and downed four of his six punts inside the 20 yard line and out-punted the opposition in average yardage 46.8 to 36.5. Kicker Graham Nicholson is a Lou Groza award finalist and while he saw his perfect streak of 25 kicks in a row come to an end, he split the uprights on three separate occasions and, as Martin noted, booted a touchback on the kickoff all but one time. That one return? Toledo was swarmed on the return inside the 20 and eventually punted.
Linebackers Matt Salopek and Ty Wise chased down the slippery Dequan Finn and held him to 33 yards on the ground, well below his season average. The secondary played well too and limited Finn to a 50% completion rate. Whether it was the motivation of a conference championship or revenge from an earlier 21-17 loss this season, the defense was sharp all game long and provided a great deal of energy to the entire RedHawks team.
Miami had revenge in mind when facing the defending MAC champion Toledo Rockets, but quarterback Aveon Smith had extra motivation entering Saturday’s game. He entered the regular season contest against Toledo in the 3rd quarter after starting quarterback Brett Gabbert went down with a brutal leg injury. Trailing 21-17 with only a couple of minutes left on the clock, Smith engineered a drive near midfield but fumbled on a run and Toledo covered for the win.
At Ford Field, Smith wiped away those painful memories with a 50 yard sprint late in the fourth quarter, setting up an eventual touchdown from Rashad Amos that would seal the game for the RedHawks. He finished the day one yard shy of 100 and completed a pair of 30 yard passes to Luke Bolden and Amos. Offensively, there were bumps in the road for Miami who went just 4 of 14 on 3rd down, but the RedHawks managed 197 yards rushing and held a decisive time of possession advantage in the first quarter that eventually translated to 34:03 of possession compared to Toledo’s 25:57.
Miami’s eleventh win of the season is their most since a 13-win 2003 campaign when Ben Roethlisberger was cementing his legacy in Oxford, Ohio. No team in the MAC has been more successful than Miami. They rank first in the conference in wins, and their 17th MAC championship also ranks most in league that dates back to 1946.
On Sunday, the RedHawks were awarded with a trip to the Cure Bowl to face an always upset-minded Appalachian State Mountaineers team that were runners-up in the Sun Belt. The Cure Bowl has featured several highly anticipated "Group of 5" matchups since the inaugural game in 2015 and the game on Saturday, December 16 is no exception. For the second straight game, the RedHawks will draw the national spotlight with the 3:30 PM ET kickoff being broadcast on ABC.
Rashad Amos (0) has led the RedHawks in rushing this season and punched in the decisive touchdown to clinch the MAC championship.