Six weeks ago, when Miami was 0-6, the prospect of this question being asked Tuesday in the press box of Yager Stadium was unthinkable.
“Any bowl reps here?”
The answer was no, but that the RedHawks were playing Ball State on Tuesday with a win meaning they would be eligible for a bowl berth bordered on miraculous.
Miami completed the improbable journey from being 0-6 to bowl-eligible at 6-6 by coming from behind to win 21-20 in the regular-season finale on Gus Ragland’s 27-yard touchdown pass with 5:44 left to fifth-year senior wide receiver Sam Shisso, who was playing his final home game.
Ragland, who has thrown 178 career passes without an interception, connected with fifth-year senior Rokeem Williams for two touchdown passes.
Coach Chuck Martin found it especially gratifying that seniors played such major roles in the historic win. Since the NCAA started allowing teams to play 12 games, no team had finished 6-6 after starting 0-6.
“It was very fitting for Shisso,” coach Chuck Martin said. “He didn’t think he’d play much this year. We didn’t think he’d play much this year. The seniors won more games at the end of their career than they did their whole careers. They were 5-36.”
The RedHawks offset Ball State’s 247-62 advantage in rushing yards by not turning the ball over and getting 380 passing yards and three touchdowns from Ragland, who went 26-of-35 in his first career 300-yard game.
The RedHawks (6-6, 6-2 Mid-American Conference) finished in a tie with Ohio for first place in the East Division. The Bobcats win the championship and a berth in the MAC Championship Game by virtue of having beaten Miami, 17-7, in the conference opener Oct. 1.
“I honestly don’t know how we got here,” Martin said. “I certainly didn’t think we’d win six straight, but I thought we’d be good.”
James Gilbert gained 117 yards rushing and quarterback Riley Neal added 96 and a touchdown while throwing for 188 yards for Ball State (4-8, 1-7 MAC West). KeVonn Mabon had 11 catches for 122 yards and a touchdown, but his 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown after Miami took the lead in the fourth quarter was wiped out by a holding penalty.
The Cardinals bounced back from giving up a touchdown on Miami’s first possession to take a 17-7 halftime lead. The RedHawks rushed down the field the first time they touched the ball, going 74 yards in four plays and two minutes, 18 seconds with Ragland going 3-for-3 for 69 yards. He capped the drive by finding Williams over the middle for a 36-yard touchdown. Williams made a leaping catch and tumbled into the end zone in the grasp of a defender for his second touchdown catch of the season.
Ball State tied the score on remarkable similar drive — four plays, 70 yards, one minute, 59 seconds. Mabon caught a pass from Neal, broke a tackle and scored with 1:19 left in the first quarter.
The Cardinals took a 14-7 lead on their next possession with Neal waltzing three yards into the end zone after a deft fake handoff.
Fourth-year junior Heath Harding stopped another Ball State threat with an interception in the end zone on first down at the RedHawks 18-yard line, the fourth of the season for the Dayton Christian product, but Ball State was able to squeeze in Morgan Hagee’s field goal as the half ended.
Miami received the second-half kickoff and Ragland connected with Williams for a 74-yard touchdown pass with Williams breaking a tackle on the way to the end zone. Ball State countered with a 25-yard field goal with 9:25 left in the third quarter.