Special teams, QB play key in Miami’s victory in MAC opener

Credit: Jeff Sabo

Credit: Jeff Sabo

OXFORD -- One of the keys to Miami’s 28-17 Mid-American Conference football win over Central Michigan on Saturday developed on plays during which virtually nothing happened.

Second-year freshman punter Dom Dzioban and the RedHawks’ coverage team effectively negated prolific Chippewas punt returner Kalil Pimpleton by forcing fair catches on five of Dzioban’s six punts. Dzioban averaged 40 yards per punt, but he and his punt team helped force Central Michigan to work extra hard on offense.

“He was one of the unsung heroes of the game,” RedHawks coach Chuck Martin said Monday during his weekly media session. “Pimpleton is one of the most electric players in the MAC. If he makes the first guy miss, he’s probably in the end zone. It was huge to neutralize him.

“I’d rather have those punts than the 58-yarders where he has plenty of open space in front of him.”

Despite generating zero return yards on Saturday, Pimpleton still leads the MAC in average punt return yardage, which indicates how dangerous he can be. The one punt he didn’t fair catch was downed by Miami (2-3, 0-1) at the Central Michigan 2-yard line. The Chippewas eventually punted on that possession and junior Jalen Walker returned it to the Central Michigan 27-yard line.

Fourth-year sophomore quarterback A.J. Mayer, who played the second half in place of the injured third-year sophomore Brett Gabbert, threw an interception to end that possession, and the Chippewas turned that turnover into a touchdown that left them leading, 17-14, 85 seconds into the fourth quarter, but the RedHawks still were in the game with plenty of time to mount a comeback in large part because of their special teams, which were a force during Miami’s run to the 2019 MAC championship.

“This was, by far, their best game,” Martin said. “There were no negative plays and a lot of positive plays.”

The 6-foot-2, 226-pound Mayer shook off the squandered scoring opportunity to finish 13-of-18 for 179 yards and two touchdowns. He credited at least in part the festive and raucous Yager Stadium Family Weekend atmosphere, fueled by an announced crowd of 15,065.

“It was an awesome atmosphere – the best since I’ve been at Miami,” he said. “That’s the way Miami should be at every single game. It was really, really cool.”

The crowd included Martin’s daughter, Emma, who chose to risk being late to her Homecoming dance in order to watch the game – a show of family dedication that moved Chuck Martin to tears during his post-game media session. He had urged her to go to the dance, but she chose to first watch the game.

The coach also was moved by the resiliency displayed by the RedHawks after falling behind in the fourth quarter. They responded with a five-play, 78-yard touchdown drive, followed by a defensive stop and a six-play, 50-yard scoring drive to put the game out of reach.

“That took all the wind out of the building,” he said on Monday about Central Michigan’s go-ahead touchdown. “Momentum is between the ears. You’ve got to flip your brain and go play.”

What made Miami’s comeback even more impressive was putting it together with three starters and a key contributor all sidelined with injuries. Gabbert was one of four Miami players who were knocked out of the game. Sixth-year senior tight end Andrew Homer, who didn’t start but caught a touchdown pass, fifth-year senior running back Jaylon Bester and fifth-year junior safety Sterling Weatherford also left. All four are listed as starters on the RedHawks’ depth chart for Miami’s 3:30 p.m. game on Saturday at Eastern Michigan (3-2, 0-1) – like Central Michigan (2-3, 0-1), a MAC West Division team. Whether the injured players would be good to go remained to be seen.

“It’s too early to tell,” Martin said. “We’ll have to see how they bounce back. Some might play. Some of them might be gametime decisions.”

The RedHawks aren’t scheduled to open East Division play until October 16 against Akron at 2:30 p.m. at Yager Stadium.


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

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