Aveon Smith rushed for 99 yards, Rashad Amos scored two rushing touchdowns and Yahsyn McKey grabbed a game-sealing interception to lead Miami to a 23-14 victory over No. 23 Toledo in the MAC Championship Game in front of 20,200 spectators at Detroit’s Ford Field.
“You’ve just got to fight, and scratch, and claw — try to make plays,” RedHawks coach Chuck Martin said. “That’s what we did the whole game. Defense was phenomenal, and special teams set up field position all day.”
Miami, which reached the 10-win mark for the first time since going 10-4 in 2010 and achieved a 10-win regular season first the first time since 2003, was aided all game by its dominant special teams and defensive performances.
RedHawks place kicker Graham Nicholson connected on three field goals, and defensive lineman Austin Ertl blocked two kicks — including one that slowed momentum on Toledo’s final drive.
Miami zoned in on Toledo’s Dequan Finn — the MAC Most Valuable Player — and applied pressure on the elusive quarterback all game long.
“You can’t let a guy like that just sit back there and throw the ball around,” Ertl said of Finn, who threw for 273 yards and a touchdown and added a rushing touchdown. “… when you run our defense, good plays will happen.”
Nicholson kicked a 33-yard field goal to give Miami a 3-0 lead with 11:40 left in the first quarter.
Then Amos punched it in from 1-yard out to extend Miami’s advantage to 10-0 with 46 seconds left in the opening period.
Junior Vanderhoss III caught a 30-yard pass reception from Finn, and a Miami defensive pass interference call set up a first-and-goal for the Rockets with under two minutes left before the half.
Finn hit Anthony Torres on a 13-yard TD pass and the two-point conversion play to cut Miami’s lead to 10-8 with 9 seconds showing on the second-quarter clock.
Finn connected with Vanderhoss on a 60-yard pass play before Finn found the end zone on a keeper to give Toledo its first lead of the game — 14-13 with 9:00 left in the third quarter.
Miami regained the lead when Nicholson booted a 40-yard field goal to make it 16-14 with 13:27 remaining.
The RedHawks got the big offensive play they needed in the fourth quarter to all but put the game away.
Smith took a read-option keeper for 50 yards to the to set up the game-winning touchdown run by Amos with 3:23 left to play give Miami its nine-point lead.
“How did you get caught?” Martin joked with Smith. “I thought you were gone. I thought he housed it.”
“You’re right,” Smith smiled. “I should have scored. … That was the moment we needed to make and take advantage of for sure.”
Smith finished with 99 yards on 21 carries.
‘WE CAN STILL WIN THIS THING’
Martin recalled the moment of uncertainty when Miami starting quarterback Brett Gabbert suffered a season-ending leg injury in the RedHawks’ 21-17 loss to Toledo at Yager Stadium on Oct. 21.
“Battling Toledo four weeks, five weeks ago — they’re a great team and we’re in a battle,” Martin said. “It’s a tight game, and we’re kind of coming back. We’ve got a chance.
“Then Brett gets hurt,” an emotional Martin added. “You’re thinking, ‘God, why does this happen?’ It was kind of a fluke play. And you’re like, ‘This kid doesn’t deserve this.’ A broken collar bone year ago. We were in such a good place. This have worked so hard and earned it. And he’s sitting here with a bone sticking out of his leg.
" … Brett’s on the field and is in a lot of pain, I tell this story, and it’s a pretty awesome story that day. He said, ‘Coach, we can still win this thing.’ And I’m not thinking anything about winning the MAC.”
The RedHawks have now won five in a row since.
IN THE KNOW
Toledo (11-2) is the defending MAC champions, beating Ohio 17-7 in last year’s title game. … The RedHawks made their sixth appearance in the MAC Championship Game and their first since the 2019 season.
Both teams will find out Sunday which bowl games they’ll play in.