Chuck Martin remembers well the first Mid-American Conference win of his Miami coaching career, a 42-41 edging of Massachusetts in 2014 that snapped a 13-game conference losing streak and overall 21-game skid.
“It was like Mardi Gras around here,” said Martin, who at the time was in his first season with the RedHawks.
During his weekly media session on Friday, Martin used that game as evidence of just how far the program has come in five seasons. Led by the remaining members of his first recruiting class – defensive lineman Mack Duffin, linebacker Brad Koenig, offensive linemen Mitch Palmer and Jordan Rigg, quarterback Gus Ragland, running backs Alonzo Smith and Kenny Young and defensive back Daryus Thompson – the RedHawks went to a bowl game in 2016 and have a slight chance this season to win the MAC East Division championship and make their first conference-championship game appearance since 2010.
Miami (5-6, 5-2) needs a win over Ball State (4-7, 3-4) on Tuesday in a 7 p.m. game at Yager Stadium to keep alive their hopes for a MAC championship and bowl game, a position that wasn’t even a remote possibility five years ago.
Martin and the fifth-year seniors joined a program that had gone 0-12 overall and 0-8 in 2013. Since Ragland came back from a gruesome knee injury to take over as starting quarterback in the seventh game of the 2016 season, Miami is 14-4 in MAC games that he’s started. That’s an enviable record for somebody who didn’t a receive a Division I offer as a Moeller senior until Martin made him the coach’s first recruit after taking the job in December 2013.
Offensive left tackle Jordan Riggs, a Springboro product, also fits into the category of players who rose above what Martin called the “What’s left” category to become accomplished players.
“With what they’ve been through, I’m so proud of them,” Martin said. “They’ve battled and fought. What these guys have done and their accomplishments … The kids fought and scratched. They’ve accomplished so much, and they don’t get credit for anything. They’ve proved that they’re better than ‘what’s left.’ They’ve been really, really good players – a pretty crazy special group for what they’ve accomplished.”
The RedHawks are 16-14 overall since Ragland took over, including 1-2 in the three games he missed last season with an injury, but he points out he’s not one a one-man class.
“We have a pretty strong, deep group of seniors,” he said. “They’ve been impactful. We knew going in what we were get getting into. We take a lot of pride in it. It feels good to have been able to change things and change how football is looked at. It’s been a bunch of seniors who’ve gotten us to where we are now. We owe the seniors and the coaching staff and (athletic director) David Sayler and the fans and the university to end it on a high note.”
Just in the past four games, the RedHawks have made a long journey for a non-conference game at Army, followed by another lengthy trip to face division-leading Buffalo, a home game against arch-rival Ohio and yet another trek to DeKalb, Ill., to face West Division-champion Northern Illinois. Miami is 2-2 over that stretch, and the losses were by one point in double-overtime at Army and 51-42 at Buffalo.
Along the way, the defense has gotten so banged up that just four players have started every game. Having back-to-back recruiting classes ranked among the MAC’s top three has helped Miami handle the carnage. Senior defensive tackle Pasquale Calcagno witnessed first-hand the impact when fifth-year senior linebacker Brad Koenig missed all but the opening series in Wednesday’s 13-7 win at Northern Illinois.
“When Brad went down, there was some concern, but after a couple of series, we saw that we were going to be alright, so we weren’t as concerned,” Calcagno said. “We were more concerned about doing our own jobs.”
Now Calcagno and his fellow departing seniors are hoping to beat Ball State and keep alive their scant hopes of winning the division championship. They need a Miami win and Buffalo loss at Bowling Green on Friday to pull it off. Either way, they know it will be their last game at Yager Stadium.
“I’m excited to be playing what’s possibly my last game with my best friends,” Calcagno said.