Miami’s offense needed nearly the entire first half to get on the same page.
Getting their act together meant getting on a roll.
The RedHawks scored on four consecutive possessions, the first three of them touchdowns, and held off Northern Illinois for a 27-24 Mid-American Conference inter-division win on Saturday before a “Family Weekend” crowd of 11,710 at Yager Stadium.
»RELATED: Saturday’s boxscore
After going into their final first half possession with just 21 yards of total offense, Miami had 347 before taking a knee on the last three plays to maintain possession of the Mallory Cup for the second year of its two-year existence. The cup is named in honor of Bill Mallory, the coach who won MAC championships at both schools.
Miami coach Chuck Martin admitted that he wouldn’t know until watching video what changed for his offense.
“I didn’t see two offensive plays the whole game,” said Martin, who focuses on the defense. “I didn’t say two words to the offensive coaches.”
Junior running back Jaylon Bester scored two rushing touchdowns, true freshman quarterback Brett Gabbert went 15-for-28 for 273 yards and one touchdowns, and third-year sophomore wide receiver Jalen Walker reached triple figures in receiving yardage for the first time in his career, finishing with seven catches for 138 yards as Miami improved to 3-4 overall and 2-1 in the Mid-American Conference East Division.
Sam Sloman made up for missing an early 30-yard field-goal try by connecting on kicks of 34 and 37 yards in the fourth quarter to help give Miami some breathing room.
Backup quarterback Marcus Childers, who lost his job to Ross Bowers after leading the Huskies to the MAC championship last season, came in for the injured Bowers and scored two rushing touchdowns for Northern Illinois (2-5, 1-2 MAC West).
Neither team turned the ball over and they combined for six penalties for 38 yards in a remarkably cleanly played game. The RedHawks were whistled for five of the penalties, including three for offsides.
The RedHawks are scheduled to play the first of two straight MAC road games next Saturday when they travel to Kent State. The Golden Flashes skipped to 3-4 overall and 2-1 in the MAC East with a 45-38 loss on Saturday at Ohio (3-4, 2-1 MAC East), the team Miami is scheduled to meet in Athens, Ohio, at 7:30 p.m. or 8 p.m. on Nov. 6.
NIU wide receiver Cole Tucker’s one-handed catch completed a 39-yard play and gave NIU first down at Miami’s five-yard line late in the first quarter. RedHawks safety Mike Brown and middle linebacker Ryan McWood teamed up to stop one screen pass and Brown nimbly avoided a block to make an open-field tackle on a screen to the other side, forcing the Huskies to settle for John Richardson’s 25-yard field goal.
“You’ve got to make big plays,” said McWood, who led both teams with 14 total tackles and eight unassisted tackles. “Mike showed some good film study and made a big play.”
“Turning point, not a turning point, it still was huge,” Martin said. “We made them settle for three instead of scoring seven and it was 27-24.”
Talawanda product Maurice Thomas returned the ensuing kickoff 86 yards to the NIU 14, but Miami could gain only one yard before Sloman missed from 30 yards.
After NIU capitalized on Kyle Kramer’s 34-yard punt to put together a 13-play, 43-yard drive leading to a 10-0 lead, Miami’s anemic offense started showing signs of life. Gabbert opened with a 26-yard pass to Dominique Robinson. That was five more yards than the RedHawks had been able to squeeze out in the half going into the possession. Gabbert completed three of his next four passes, including a 23-yard hookup to the Huskies’ nine-yard line. Miami went for it on fourth-and-goal from the one, and Bester made the decision pay off with a touchdown.
“I don’t know if anything changed,” Gabbert said. “I was making terrible reads. I wasn’t playing well. We went into the two-minute offense and started playing fast and got some rhythm.”
The RedHawks received the opening kickoff and went 90 yards in eight plays with Gabbert connecting with James Maye on a 45-yard cross pattern for a touchdown on the way to a 14-10 lead. The touchdown catch was the first of the true freshman’s career.
Gabbert was a combined 8-for-9 for 141 yards on the two drives.
NIU scored to regain a 17-14 lead, but Miami responded with its third straight touchdown drive. Walker made a leaping catch of a 40-yard pass from Gabbert on third-and-10 while being interfered with to give the RedHawks first down at the NIU 1. Bester scored on third down on Gabbert’s option pitch.
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