Smith’s growth key in Miami comeback over Northern Illinois

OXFORD -- The Miami football team’s parade of seven sleeper buses arrived back on the Oxford campus between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. Thursday after a long trip made even longer by traffic problems shut down the interstate on their way home from DeKalb, Ill.

It was a long but satisfying trip for the RedHawks, who persevered stoutly enough to put together a 29-23 win over Northern Illinois on Wednesday in a grueling Mid-American Conference road game.

Behind redshirt-freshman quarterback Aveon Smith, back on the field with fourth-year junior Brett Gabbert injured, Miami shook off a 10-0 first-quarter deficit to outscore the Huskies, 29-13, the rest of the way and improve to 5-6 overall and 3-4 in the MAC East Division.

“We’re excited about the victory,” ninth-year Miami coach Chuck Martin said Thursday. “It was cold and miserable. We didn’t get off to a great start, but we were able to flip the field and get some quick stops from our defense. We went from being down 10 to being up nine in the third quarter.

“Everybody contributed. ‘AV’ (Smith) played a really good game.”

Smith threw for 185 yards and a touchdown and ran for 105 yards and two touchdowns and the RedHawks’ defense left Northern Illinois (3-8, 2-5 MAC) 0-for-9 on third-down conversion attempts. Miami was 7-of-17 on third down.

Martin anticipated Smith putting together a solid game after watching him in practice before going to Northern Illinois. From the coach’s point of view, Smith developed from the quarterback who started six games while Gabbert was recovering from a left (non-throwing) shoulder injury sustained late in Miami’s 37-13 season-opening loss at Kentucky. Smith returned to the lineup after Gabbert suffered an ankle injury on the last play of the RedHawks’ 37-21 loss to Ohio on Nov. 8.

“He was spitting the ball out,” Martin said. “He was different. He’d learned from some of the plays he’d tried to make earlier. ‘I know not to do that. That was dumb.’ You can’t cheat experience, but he’s still got tons of growth.”

The “Mallory Cup” win, which honors the man who coached at both programs, keeps Miami in contention for a possible bowl bid. The RedHawks need to beat 5-6 Ball State on Tuesday in the regular-season finale at Yager Stadium in Oxford – the latest edition of the “Redbird Rivalry” series – to reach the minimum number of wins usually required by the NCAA for teams to be eligible for a bowl game berth.

The RedHawks will have one less day to prepare for the Cardinals, who lost, 32-18, to Ohio at home in Muncie, Ind., on Tuesday. Martin has grown to accept the tradeoffs of the MAC’s move over the past few years to playing midweek prime-time games designed to maximize the conference’s exposure.

Miami’s game at Northern Illinois was televised by the CBS Sports Network. The Ball State game is set to be televised on ESPN+.

“We’re on national TV,” he said. “I had recruits calling me after the game. Sure, it’s hard on the kids, but it’s cool to be on ESPN.”

While the schedule can be challenging, Martin insisted it wouldn’t be any different than if teams were playing only on Saturdays this late in the season.

“You have to adjust, anyway,” he said. “You’re hanging on by a thread. Some guys wouldn’t practice all week. They’d prepare mentally, but not physically. Sometimes, you have a shorter week. We had an extra day last week (before losing to Ohio). Eight days would be nice.”

TUESDAY’S GAME

Ball State at Miami, 7 p.m., ESPN+, 980, 1450

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