Fast start key for Miami in MAC Championship Game

RedHawks face Toledo at noon on Saturday

If any Mid-American Conference football program has a pedigree that comes close to matching Miami’s, it is Toledo.

That alone makes Saturday’s MAC Championship Game a must-watch. The 11-1 Rockets, the defending conference champions and this season’s West Division winners with an 8-0 record, and the 10-2 and 7-1 East-champion RedHawks are scheduled to square off at Ford Field in Detroit at noon.

Toledo goes into the game ranked 23rd in the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll. The Rockets have won 13 division championships, the most of any conference program. They are 8-0 in the MAC for the first time in school history.

Miami leads conference teams with 723 overall wins, 317 MAC wins, 16 conference championships and eight bowl wins.

The history is substantial, but the RedHawks are more concerned with the imposing matchup they face on Saturday as they pursue their fourth championship-game win in their sixth appearance since the MAC started sponsoring championship games in 1997.

Led by quarterback Dequan Finn, named on Wednesday as the conference player of the year, and running back Peny Boone, the MAC’s Offensive Player of the Year, the Rockets lead the MAC with averages of 35.3 points per game, 431.0 yards per game, 211.7 rushing yards per game and 219.3 passing yards per game.

“They’re two pretty good players,” fifth-year senior nickel back Michael Dowell assessed during Miami’s weekly media session on Monday. “We have to try to contain them.”

Finn finished 16-of-28 for 160 yards and two touchdowns while Boone gained 73 yards on 17 carries in Toledo’s 21-17 win over Miami at Yager Stadium on Oct. 21. The RedHawks’ only MAC loss was made even notable by the season-ending leg injury suffered late in the third quarter by quarterback Brett Gabbert.

Miami fell behind, 21-3, by halftime before forcing the Rockets to punt on seven consecutive possessions in the second half, but the RedHawks fell just short of completing their comeback.

“We have to try to start fast,” Dowell said. “We have to have the same mentality in the first half that we had in the second half.”

Offense isn’t Toledo’s only weapon. The Rockets lead the MAC with 34 sacks while having allowed the fewest sacks with just 10. On the other hand, Miami junior defensive end Caiden Woullard is tied for the conference lead in sacks with 11, while redshirt-junior linebacker Matt Salopek was named on Wednesday as the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year and junior kicker Graham Nicholson was named the Special Teams Player of the Year, one day after he joined the list of finalists for the Lou Groza Award, given annually to the nation’s top kicker.

Meanwhile, Miami’s offense ranks second with 27.3 points per game. The RedHawks are second in the conference with an average of 16.3 points allowed per game, just ahead of Toledo’s average of 20.4.

“Structurally, they’re really sound,” 10th-year Miami coach Chuck Martin said of Toledo’s defense. “They do everything we do. They’re like us. They’re simple and sound. They’ll do what they’re going to do. It will be a great challenge for our offense — just like the last time.”

The lists could go on and on. Suffice to say, Saturday’s showdown features, as it should, the conference’s two best teams.

Miami junior center Kolby Borders was looking forward to playing in the MAC title game after traveling to the 2019 game as a freshman whose only experience was on the scout team.

“I have one ring,” he said. “It’s meaningful. We’ve had a great regular season, but the job’s not finished. Ten wins are great, but it won’t mean much if we don’t win the last one.”


Miami vs. Toledo, Noon, ESPN, 980, 1450

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