‘We win fourth down’ -- Miami football gets big boost from special teams

Credit: Matt Marton

Credit: Matt Marton

OXFORD — From the 31-24 overtime win at Cincinnati in Week 3 to Saturday’s 17-15 nail-biting “Redbird Rivalry” victory at Ball State, there’s no question that the Miami RedHawks wouldn’t have finished the regular season 10-2 overall and 7-1 in the Mid-American Conference without game-changing — if not game-winning —– contributions from their special teams.

Junior defensive end Caiden Woullard blocked the Cardinals’ extra-point attempt after they scored on their first possession. Redshirt-junior Kobe Hilton blocked Ball State’s shot at a go-ahead field goal with 1:04 left in regulation to preserve the two-point lead and set up the win.

Adding it up, that’s four points saved in a two-point win.

The plays were reminiscent of senior cornerback Yahsyn McKee’s block of what would have been a game-winning field goal at Cincinnati, forcing overtime that helped Miami snap a 16-game losing streak in the historic “Victory Bell” series.

Still, 10th year RedHawks coach Chuck Martin wasn’t prepared to say that this season’s special teams’ performance is the best he’s seen.

“It’s hard to beat the 2019 team,” he said on Monday during the program’s weekly media session that ushered in the last few days of preparation before Saturday’s MAC Championship Game against defending-champion Toledo at Detroit’s Ford Field.

The 2019 team won the MAC East title and beat Central Michigan in the conference title game before losing to Louisiana in the LendingTree Bowl. The special teams included kicker Sam Sloman, who was named second-team All-American by The Athletic and second-team All-MAC after making 26-of-30 field goals.

“He was the only kicker to be picked in the (National Football League) draft,” Martin recalled. Sloman was a seventh-round pick of the Los Angeles Rams in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Punter Kyle Kramer finished second in the MAC and was named first-team All-MAC after finishing second with an average of 43.4 yards per punt.

Talawanda product Maurice Thomas led the MAC with an average of 12.6 yards per punt return.

In a similarity to this year’s win at Ball State, freshman defensive lineman Lonnie Phelps blocked a punt to set the RedHawks with first-and-goal and later scooped up Emmanuel Rugumba’s blocked punt and returned it 32 yards for a touchdown in 2019.

The only difference? Miami lost, 41-27, in Muncie.

The RedHawks also blocked two punts before Nicholson connected on a 36-yard field goal as time expired for a 17-14 win at Northwestern last season.

At best, Martin allowed that this year’s special team units are comparable to 2019′s. Nicholson is a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award, given to the kicker judged to be the nation’s best, after going 23-of-23 on field goals and 33-of-34 on extra points. The only miss was a block. He leads the MAC with an average of 8.5 points per game and has been named MAC East Special Teams Player of the Week five times.

Martin said Nicholson makes if difficult the judge Miami’s kick return defense because he routinely produces touchbacks.

Junior punter Alec Bevelhimer, who was second on the depth chart before returning starter Dom Dzioban suffered an injury in spring practice, leads the MAC with an average of 46.0 yards per punt. Bevelhimer is a three-time MAC East Special Teams Player of the Week.

Redshirt-junior Cade McDonald leads the conference with an average of 12.6 yards per punt return, while junior Kevin Davis ranks second with an average of 23.4 yards per kick return.

Martin is quick to credit special teams coach and defensive assistant Jacob Bronowski and other assistants for deploying disciplined and enthusiastic units for special teams’ duty. They are responsible for coaxing players such as redshirt-junior starting linebacker Matt Salopek to not just play on special teams, but to also be excited about it.

“It takes a lot of things, like any unit,” Martin said. “It takes everybody. We’re sound in punt protection. We’ve kept guys away from ‘Bev.’ Our punt return unit is our best unit. That starts with Cade.

“Our structure is really sound, and we have as much buy-in as anybody in the country.

“We win fourth down.”

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