Nineteen Miami seniors played their final game on their home turf at Yager Stadium on Tuesday night, but they’re likely to play at least one more game and maybe two before hanging up their red-and-white-and-sometimes-gray jerseys.
Senior running back Alonzo Smith gained 207 yards and scored three touchdowns on 18 carries leading a ground-oriented Miami offense that rolled up a season-high 364 rushing yards and scored five unanswered touchdowns in a 42-21 Mid-American Conference win over Ball State.
Senior quarterback Gus Ragland also scored two touchdowns and threw a touchdown pass and junior safety Zedrick Raymond and sophomore nickel back Mike Brown both came up with interceptions that led to touchdowns as Miami (6-6, 6-2) earned bowl eligibility for the second time in the last three seasons.
“These guys can go to bed knowing they’re the second-best team in the MAC,” fifth-year coach Chuck Martin said, pointing out wins at home over Ohio and at Northern Illinois as evidence.
The RedHawks shook off three straight season-opening losses and two straight one-score defeats at midseason to reach .500.
“It’s amazing,” Brown said. “Everyone is really excited. We’ve been through a lot. We’ve been through a lot of injuries. Everybody stuck together.”
“It’s very satisfying after starting 0-3,” Smith said. “We kept fighting through the middle and the end of the season to finish strong. We knew we had the ability.”
Ragland threw two passes in the second half.
Football Bowl Subdivision teams must finish at least .500 to be eligible for a bowl-game berth.
The win also kept alive the RedHawks’ scant hopes for MAC East Division championship. The RedHawks can capture their first division title since 2010 and earn a berth in the Nov. 30 MAC Championship Game at Detroit’s Ford Field if Bowling Green (3-8, 2-5) upsets Buffalo (9-2, 6-1) at Bowling Green and Akron (4-6, 2-5) loses at Ohio (7-4, 5-2). Both of those games are scheduled for Friday at noon.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Martin said. “I’ll be rooting for Bowling Green. I’ll be rooting for Ohio unless I see Buffalo winning. Then I’ll root against Ohio. I’m not going to worry about what’s going to happen.”
Along with Ragland and Smith, the game was the last at home for Miami seniors Josh Allen, Jack Alpert, Nate Becker, Pasquale Calcagno, Mack Duffin, James Gardner, Brad Koenig, Sam McCollum, Junior McMullen, De’Andre Montgomery, Paul Moses, Ryan Mullen, Mitch Palmer, Gus Ragland, Jordan Rigg, Daryus Thompson, Nate Trawick and Kenny Young.
Young missed the second half with a leg injury, but that didn’t keep the RedHawks from amassing numbers that had observers paging through record books. Smith became the first Miami player since Steve Little at Buffalo in 2000 to crack the 200-yard barrier. The RedHawks as a team finished with the most rushing yards since racking up 399 against Akron in 1999.
“I’m feeling great,” Smith said. “The (offensive) line did a great job opening holes, and with Kenny Young out, I was playing for my brother out there. It’s really special.”
Miami scored two touchdowns in the last four minutes to forge a 21-21 halftime tie. Ball State (4-8, 3-5 MAC West) led, 21-7, with 4:45 left in the first half on touchdown runs by wide receiver Justin Hall and quarterback Drew Plitt and Plitt’s 22-yard pass to Riley Miller, who made a juggling catch that survived a video review.
Plitt’s touchdown run followed a flea-flicker in which he threw a backwards pass to wide receiver Corey Lacanaria and then caught the return forward pass for a 22-yard gain, one of many trick plays the Cardinals ran in the first half
“Everything they were throwing at us were things that we covered all week,” Brown said. “We just didn’t know what to expect in the second half.”
Ragland’s first-quarter one-yard plunge was the RedHawks’ only score until Smith broke free on fourth-and-one from their own 44-yard line for a 56-yard scoring run that lifted him past John Pont and into eighth place on Miami’s career rushing list and helped cut the Cardinals’ lead to 21-14.
Miami got the ball back with 2:42 left and had to punt, but senior defensive and Pasquale Calcagno’s third-down sack gave Miami one more shot with 46 seconds left, and the RedHawks squeezed in six plays, tying the score on Ragland’s four-pass to sophomore wide receiver Dominique Robinson with five seconds remaining before halftime.
Ragland capped Miami’s first possession of the second half with his second 1-yard sneak of the game, giving the RedHawks their first lead, 28-21, with 11:02 left in the third quarter. Smith followed with a 47-yard touchdown run that pushed him past his previous single-game high for rushing yards of 164 set in a 38-23 win at Bowling Green on Sept. 22 .