RedHawks embracing season-opening challenge

Miami RedHawks quarterback Brett Gabbert during an NCAA football game on Saturday, Sept. 7 , 2019 in Oxford. (AP Photo/Tony Tribble)
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Miami RedHawks quarterback Brett Gabbert during an NCAA football game on Saturday, Sept. 7 , 2019 in Oxford. (AP Photo/Tony Tribble)

Miami set to visit No. 8 Cincinnati today at Nippert Stadium

OXFORD -- So, let’s get this straight.

Chuck Martin is set to open his eighth season as Miami’s football coach by taking his RedHawks on the road to what is likely to be a raucous, sold-out Nippert Stadium, where they will face a University of Cincinnati team that is ranked eighth in the country in the Associated Press preseason poll and 10th in the coaches poll.

Those rankings are based on Cincinnati bringing back 18 starters from a team that went 9-1 last season, won the American Athletic Conference championship and pushed Southeastern Conferencepower Georgia to the limit in the Peach Bowl before losing, 24-21, on a field goal with three seconds left.

Meanwhile, pandemic protocols limited Miami to three games last season. The RedHawks went 2-1, but one of the nine scheduled regular-season games that were cancelled was against Cincinnati, which creates an element of uncertainty around a bitter rivalry that the Bearcats have recently dominated with 14 straight wins.

If any team ranks as an underdog going into an opener, it’s Miami. Guess what. Martin can’t wait.

“It probably doesn’t get any better for us than this,” Martin said this week . “...We’re playing Cincinnati right out of the chute. It’s our huge rival. They’re No. 8 in the country. We’re on the road. I’m anticipating a packed house based on what they did last year, so I don’t know how it gets any better for us.”

He’s not the only member of the program who’s anxious to play.

“I’m ready to roll,” said sixth-year senior tight end Andrew Homer, who missed last season with a knee injury. “It’s going to be excellent.”

The 6-foot-6, 246-pound Homer is among 26 players on Miami’s roster who helped lead the RedHawks to a 26-21 win over Central Michigan in the 2019 Mid-American Conference championship game. He joins sophomore quarterback Brett Gabbert and wide receiver Jack Sorenson – another sixth-year senior – as key skill players on offense, but Martin likely will be focused on the offensive line, where the loss to graduation of center Danny Godlevski and left tackle Tommy Doyle has created a shuffle.

Rusty Feth, a 6-foot-5, 322-pound sophomore, has moved from right guard to center, while 6-4, 312-pound David Redding has shifted from left guard to right guard. Caleb Shaffer, a 6-5, 324-pound sophomore, is projected to start at left guard after starting at right guard in last season’s finale. The newcomers are 6-7, 306-pound redshirt freshman Sam Vaughan at left tackle and 6-6, 290-pound freshman Reid Holskey at right tackle.

They will face a Cincinnati defense that ranked last season among the nation’s best in 2020, allowing an average of just 16.8 points per game and piling up 30 sacks. Miami’s defense is similarly accomplished. The RedHawks have 10 starters back from 2020, including 6-1, 224-pound fifth-year senior middle linebacker Ryan McWood, a former walk-on who’s led Miami in tackles each of the last two seasons.

They will be tested by a Bearcats offense led by fifth-year senior quarterback Desmond Ritter, who was named the AAC Player of the Year after throwing for 2,296 yards and 19 touchdowns and gaining 592 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground in 2020.

Also projected to start for Cincinnati are three local products: 6-4, 275-pound defensive end Malik Vann from Fairfield, 5-11, 193-pound senior kicker Cole Smith from Middletown and 5-10, 205-pound junior punt returner Ryan Montgomery from Franklin.

Miami’s most imposing challenge might be the 40,000 fans expected to fill venerable Nippert Stadium for the 3:30 p.m. kickoff. Crowds were limited in 2020 by pandemic protocols to family members of team members, cheerleaders and coaches, but with regular fans allowed to return – including a school-record 22,000 season-ticket holders – the release of pent-up enthusiasm might make it feel as if 80,000 are on hand.

Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell said his players can’t wait.

“I think they’re more excited about really getting back into Nippert and getting ‘The Ruckus’ and getting the crowd -- something that was truly, truly missed last season,” Fickell said.

TODAY’S GAME

Miami at Cincinnati, 3:30 p.m., ESPN+, 980, 1450