Grinding out an 11-play, 98-yard drive that consumes 11 seconds short of five minutes and leads to a go-ahead touchdown will warm the heart of any offensive player, especially a lineman such as Miami’s Sam McCollum.
The senior left guard smiled Monday when reminded of Saturday’s march that seemed like an early backbreaker as it ended with a 7-0 lead on the way to a 31-6 Mid-American Conference win over East Division-rival Kent State.
“It was a lot of fun,” the 6-foot-3, 310-pound Dublin, Ohio, native said. “Being able to impose your will on somebody and dominate them and score a touchdown is an accomplishment.”
That drive also is perhaps the strongest indication of how far Miami’s offense has come since the beginning of conference play. After averaging 10.3 points and 280.3 yards of total offense per game while going 0-3 against non-conference opponents, the RedHawks are averaging 37.2 points and 420.8 yards of total offense per game while moving into second place in the MAC East with a 3-1 record, a half-game behind 3-0 Buffalo.
“We kind of changed our approach,” McCollum said during Miami’s weekly media session. “We’re trying to take things one day at a time and get better in the short term.”
“We’re playing cleaner, better football,” fifth-year coach Chuck Martin said. “I think we’re an improving football team. Since Minnesota, we’ve been better on offense – more productive.”
One key has been a more effective ground game, enhanced by the return from injury of senior running back Kenny Young and sophomore right tackle Tommy Doyle. Young, the 5-7, 182-pound Tallahassee, Fla., native, was named on Monday the MAC East Offensive Player of the Week after gaining 90 yards and scoring a touchdown on 10 carries and leading the RedHawks with 47 receiving yards on three catches, propelling them to a season-high 504 yards of total offense.
Another factor has been fifth-year senior quarterback Gus Ragland’s adjustment to the loss for the season to injury of first-team all-conference wide receiver James Gardner. Ragland has been spreading the ball around, having connected with 13 different receivers through seven games after reaching just 11 through the entire 2017 season.
“Gus is more comfortable,” Martin said. “He keeps throwing the ball to open guys. His decision-making is the best it’s been his entire career. One guy isn’t going to make up for James Gardner. It’s been running backs and tight ends and (wide) receivers. If you throw the ball to open guys, everybody becomes a really good receiver.”
The RedHawks hope to continue their resurgence on Saturday at Army (4-2) in their final non-conference game of the season. Their defense will have to deal with seeing an offense rarely deployed any more in college football – the Black Knights’ triple-option attack that has them ranked second in the nation, averaging 313.5 rushing yards per game. They hold the ball for an average of 39 minutes, 44 seconds per game – the best in the country.
Ironically, Army is the last Football Bowl Subdivision non-conference team to lose to Miami. The RedHawks haven’t defeated an FBS non-conference opponent since a 35-28 win over the Black Knights on Oct. 8, 2011, at Yager Stadium. The RedHawks are 0-23 against FBS teams since then, including their 17-16 loss to Mississippi State in the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Bowl on Dec. 26, 2016.
Miami hasn’t won a road game against an FBS opponent since winning at Northwestern, 44-14, on Sept. 13, 2003, when the late Terry Hoeppner was the RedHawks’ coach and Ben Roethlisberger was the quarterback.