RedHawks top Chippewas to win MAC opener

Miami's Jalen Walker looks for running room during a game vs. Central Michigan at Yager Stadium on Oct. 2, 2021. Miami University Athletics photo
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Miami's Jalen Walker looks for running room during a game vs. Central Michigan at Yager Stadium on Oct. 2, 2021. Miami University Athletics photo

OXFORD -- Fourth-year sophomore A.J. Mayer’s 23-yard pass to redshirt freshman Nate Muersch gave Miami the lead and sixth-year senior defensive end Ben Kimpler helped make it stand up with a crucial fourth-down sack as the RedHawks knocked off Central Michigan, 28-17, in both teams’ Mid-American Conference-opener at Yager Stadium in Oxford.

Mayer also connected with sixth-year wide receiver Jack Sorenson on a third-and-5 from the Central Michigan 11 with 7:44 left in the quarter. Sorenson made a leaping catch – like a basketball player grabbing a rebound – on a wide receiver screen and scampered into the end zone with his second touchdown catch of the day.

That play capped a drive that started a midfield when Kimpler sacked Chippewas quarterback Daniel Robinson on fourth-and-7. Kimpler, father of an 8-month-old son, celebrated as if he was rocking the baby.

“That was the second one for me, and it couldn’t have happened at a better time,” he said. “Family Day, my brother was in from Seattle and my sister was here from Iowa.”

The RedHawks improved to 2-3 overall and 1-0 in the MAC going into next Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. game at Eastern Michigan.

Neither Miami coach Chuck Martin nor Sorenson could remember the last time the RedHawks ended a game with the offense running out the clock in the victory formation.

“Usually, the defense is on the field holding on,” said Martin, who told the RedHawks radio crew that the win was the biggest of his eight-year Miami career. “Down 17-14 and our offense not doing much, but we were very resilient.

“We played really good football in spurts. We kind of got some rhythm. I couldn’t be more proud. This was a really good day for Miami.”

Mayer finished 13-of-18 for 179 yards with two touchdowns and one interception while playing the second half in place of third-year sophomore Brett Gabbert, who was not seen on the sideline after halftime. Gabbert was 12-of-20 for 171 yards and two touchdowns in the first half.

“That’s A.J.,” Sorenson said. “He always steps up when his number is called. He always produces for us. We’re lucky to have two of the best quarterbacks in the MAC.”

Miami led, 14-10, when freshman punter Dom Dzioban’s punt was downed by the RedHawks at the Central Michigan (2-3, 0-1) two-yard line. The Chippewas couldn’t move the ball and Jalen Walker returned a punt 17 yards to their 27-yard line, giving the RedHawks advantageous field position, which was lost when Mayer’s pass was picked off at the goal line by safety Gage Kreski, who returned it five yards.

Central Michigan (2-3, 0-1) seemed to have converted the turnover with a 77-yard touchdown pass, but the play was called back when the Chippewas were penalized for having an ineligible receiver downfield. They ended up converting with an 11-yard touchdown pass while grabbing a 17-14 lead with 13:35 left in the fourth quarter.

“Fortunately or unfortunately, we’ve been in that situation before,” Sorenson said. “It was comfortable for a lot of guys. It was weirdly comfortable at that moment.”

“We were thinking, ‘Score, turnover, score,’” Martin said. “That was our mindset.”

Martin talked earlier in the week about hoping for more production out of Miami’s running game and he saw it on the RedHawks’ first possession. They gained 26 yards, two fewer than they accumulated in the entire 23-10 loss at Army the previous week, on a scoring drive that ended with Gabbert’s 24-yard touchdown pass to sixth-year tight end Andrew Homer, who was playing his first game since the season-opening loss at Cincinnati.

Fifth-year senior running back Jaylon Bester, who missed the entire 2020 season with an injury, gained 16 yards on three carries during the drive in his first game since 27-17 loss to Louisville in the Lending Tree Bowl on Jan. 6, 2020.

Gabbert, Homer and Bester all were injured in the first half and didn’t play after halftime.

Pressure from fifth-year senior defensive end Dominique Robinson and fourth-year sophomore defensive end Lonnie Phelps forced Richardson into an intentional grounding penalty on third down, forcing them to try for a 49-yard field goal by Marshall Meeder that caromed off the left upright, Miami responded with a nine-play, 80-yard drive capped by Gabbert’s 36-yard touchdown pass to Sorenson on a flag pattern down the right sideline.

Richardson got Central Michigan on the board with a 41-yard touchdown pass JaCorey Sullivan with 9:41 left in the second quarter.

The RedHawks had another scoring opportunity wiped out when third-year freshman middle linebacker Matthew Salopek’s interception and return deep into Central Michigan territory was overturned by a pass interference whistled on Salopek.