IOWA CITY, IOWA- SEPTEMBER 3: Running back Maurice Thomas #31 of the Miami (OH) RedHawks breaks a tackle by defensive back Manny Rugamba #5 of the Iowa Hawkeyes during the second quarter on September 3, 2016 at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa. (Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images)

College Football: Miami faces physical test at No. 20 Iowa in season opener

“It’s going to be like high school, playing under the lights,” Myles Reid, the RedHawks 6-foot-1, 225-pound senior outside linebacker, said on Monday.

While that certainly will elevate the hype level at 69,250-seat Niles Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, it’s not at the top of Miami coach Chuck Martin’s list of concerns.

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“It’s not even that it’s Saturday night at Iowa and it’s a big crowd and it’s noisy,” Martin said. “It’s more the Iowa defense.”

Miami and Iowa meet in the opener for the second time in four seasons and fifth time overall at 7:30 p.m. in a game scheduled to be televised by Fox Sports 1. Whoever starts at quarterback for the RedHawks will not only be making his first career appearance, but he’ll be attempting his first career pass.

That’s a daunting task against a Hawkeye defense that returns many of the key players, including first-team preseason All-American A.J. Epenesa at defensive end, from a unit that was one of just nine nationally to allow less than 300 yards a game in 2018. Iowa also has piled up a combined 41 interceptions over the last two seasons, the most in the country.

“They’re crazy big and physical,” Martin said. “They’re really good at getting after the quarterback. Typically, they punch you right in the mouth. It’s an awesome challenge.”

Besides having a new quarterback, Miami also must replace its top two rushers from last season’s team that finished 6-6 overall and 6-2 in the Mid-American Conference. Fifth-year senior Maurice Thomas, the top returning rusher with 233 yards last season, is listed as a starting wide receiver and will most likely line up most of the time in the slot. Speedster Jaylon Bester, a 5-8, 184-pound junior, is listed as the starting tailback with 5-10, 217-pound third-year sophomore Davion Johnson backing him up. Bester ranked second on the team last season with an average of 5.4 yards per carry. Johnson was fourth at an even 5.0.

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“I think we have a lot of great backs,” said the 5-11, 179-pound Thomas, who also is scheduled to return kickoffs. “It’s a matter of putting guys in the best setup. We’ll see how we do it when the lights are on.”

Miami’s defense will face an Iowa offense that got a pleasant surprise on Wednesday when wide receiver Oliver Martin, a transfer from Michigan, was cleared by the NCAA to play this season. Martin caught 11 passes for the Wolverines last season.

The Hawkeye offense relies on zone scheme blocking, Reid said, and, of course, is physical.

“We’re of the mindset that we have to match their physicality,” said Reid, comparing Iowa’s scheme to Buffalo, last season’s MAC East champions. “We’re definitely high on each other. We expect to play well.”

Miami will need more than just physicality.

“We have to match their mental toughness,” he said. “This will be a good measuring stick. The biggest thing is to stop the run game. They like to come at you – go north and south. The last time, we didn’t slow down the running game, and we didn’t defend the pass, either.”

Martin is under no delusions. After watching his team lose 45-21 in 2016, he knows the RedHawks are in for a challenge.

“You watch games and they just plod along, and the other team is up and it looks like they’re being outplayed, and then you look up in the fourth quarter and Iowa has the lead because Iowa just does what it does,” he said. “They’re not going to be nice to us. There’s no inching your way into this. We’re not playing Jones Junior High. I’m not sure how it would have gone in recruiting if we’d mentioned that we were going into Kinnick and they’re going to hit you.”

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