Miami begins defense of MAC championship against Ball State

RedHawks host Cardinals in season opener tonight at Yager Satdium

Miami was the last Mid-American Conference football team standing last season, losing to the University of Louisiana in the LendingTree Bowl on Jan. 6.

That means the RedHawks will have the quickest turnaround of any MAC team when the conference returns to action Wednesday night with a full slate of six games – all against league foes.

Miami welcomes Ball State for a 7 p.m. kickoff at Yager Stadium in the teams' only inter-division game of the six-game regular season. Their remaining five games will be against division rivals.

The Cardinals finished 5-7 overall and 4-4 for a third-place tie in the MAC West last season. They lost four consecutive conference games, including a 45-44 loss to eventual divisionchampion Central Michigan at home, before upsetting the RedHawks, 41-27, in the regularseason.

“Ball State is as good of a football team as anybody,” Miami coach Chuck Martin said on Friday during a Zoom media session. “They feel like, with a couple of points here and there, they could have been in the MAC Championship game. I know their coach has said it was hard to watch the MAC Championship game because he thought they should have been there.”

The Cardinals dominated the second half against the RedHawks last season, scoring 27 unanswered points after Miami led at halftime, 27-14.

“They dominated in every facet in the second half, and they’ve got a lot of kids back from that team,” Martin pointed out. “Ball State certainly earned that win.”

Miami bounced back from that loss to edge Central Michigan, 26-21, in the MAC Championship game, its first title since 2010. Plenty of RedHawks on both sides of the ball return from that team, including quarterback Brett Gabbert, who was named the MAC Freshman of the Year after becoming the first true freshman to start at quarterback in program history.

Gabbert will have to work without last season’s top two running backs, senior Jaylon Bester and sophomore Tyre Shelton. Both are likely to miss the entire season with injuries, as is tight end Andrew Homer. Fourth-year junior Davion Johnson, who averaged 2.9 yards per carry in limited action last season, is the projected starter at running back and fourth-year junior Adam Mehelic steps in at tight end.

“There’s an outside chance Bester will play at the end of this year,” Martin said.

The good news is starters return at four of the five interior offensive line positions. Also back as returning starters are wide receivers Jack Sorenson and Jalen Walker. Seven starters return on defense for the RedHawks, but graduation decimated the conference’s best special teams. Freshman Dom Dzioban is projected to take over for both All-American kicker Sam Sloman and All-MAC punter Kyle Kramer.

“We’re disappointed we lost our top tailback and top tight end, but we dealt with a ton of injuries last year,” Martin said. “We had four starting offensive linemen out at the start of the season, and (Sorenson) was out, too. We’re a tight group of kids and coaches who rely on each other. Covid is breaking a lot of people, but we’re showing our character. I’ve relied a lot on these guys and continue to rely on our players and our support group. We’ll continue to fight.”

Martin wasn’t sure what to expect in a season opener between two teams that have, literally, practiced on and off since the spring. MAC university presidents voted in August to postpone fall sports before changing their minds and voting on September 25 to allow limited schedules.

The RedHawks were picked to finish second in the East behind Buffalo in a preseason poll of MAC media members, but they were projected in a poll of conference coaches to win the division championship. Miami hasn’t won back-to-back outright division championships since 2003 and 2004.

“This is a different season,” Martin said. “It rushed on us so quickly. Very few teams repeat in any sport. You want it to be easy, but we embraced the difficulty. Week after week after week, we found ways to win games.”

“The big thing coach Martin has been harping on is complacency,” Sorenson said. “Not a lot of teams repeat. We did what we had to do last year, and a lot of times, people figure you don’t have to work as hard the next year. We have to be self-accountable for these things.”

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