McWood led an energetic defense that sparked Miami to a optimism-fueling 34-20 Miud-American Conference win over the Bulls on Saturday at Yager Stadium.
The third-year sophomore middle linebacker tied for the team lead with nine tackles and helped create three turnovers that the RedHawks turned into 10 points against the defending East Division champions.
A crowd of 18,419 watched Miami (2-3, 1-0) fall behind, 14-3, before scoring 31 unanswered points to win its third consecutive MAC opener.
Winning after the 76-5 bludgeoning at Ohio State the previous Saturday left sixth-year Miami coach Chuck Martin choked up.
“Coming off last week’s game was hard, unless you’re in denial,” Martin said before pausing to gather himself. “People have no idea where these guys were sitting on Sunday.”
Junior running back Jaylon Bester, in his first game since the season-opening loss at Iowa, scored a touchdown and set career highs with 24 carries and 107 rushing yards. His 4-yard run following true freshman quarterback Brett Gabbert’s 52-yard pass to true freshman wide receiver James Maye helped the RedHawks take a 34-14 lead with 2:14 left in the third quarter.
“It felt good,” Bester said. “I haven’t carried the ball that much since my senior year in high school. The coaches put the load on me, and I appreciate that.”
Gabbert returned from suffering first half head injury in the Sept. 21 loss at Ohio State to go 8-of-17 for 120 yards with no interceptions and one touchdown, a 13-yard completion to third-year sophomore Jalon Walker in the back right corner of the end zone that helped give Miami a 27-14 lead with 7:17 left in the third quarter. Gabbert was flattened on the play, leading to a Buffalo roughing-the-passer penalty.
The RedHawks are off next weekend. They are scheduled to resume MAC play at Western Michigan on Oct. 12. Kickoff time had yet to be announced.
Fifth-year senior Maurice Thomas became Miami’s all-time leader in kick return yards with 1,951 after his 23-yard return of Buffalo’s kickoff after the Bulls’ first touchdown. The return left the Talawanda product with one more yard than Jamal Rogers, who played from 2007 through 2010. Thomas now has 1,984 kickoff return yards.
Miami committed just two penalties for 20 yards while Buffalo (2-3, 0-1) was flagged 10 times for 103 yards.
McWood’s pressure forced Buffalo quarterback Matt Myers into an ill-advised pass that junior safety Mike Brown returned 25 yards for the go-ahead touchdown with 11:46 left in the third quarter. The touchdown was Brown’s first since scoring as a receiver in high school in 2006.
“I was thinking, ‘I just have to get there before the ball’s out,’” McWood said. “I was thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll get a strip sack.’”
McWood helped stop one Buffalo drive by tipping a pass that turned into a diving interception by Brown. The former walk-on also forced and recovered a fumble on Buffalo’s 3-yard line that Sam Sloman converted with a 21-yard field goal with 2:09 left in the first half.
“We have a lot of young guys on offense, and we feel like we’ll have to carry the load and help them out,” Brown said. “That’s our goal.”
The Bulls took a 7-0 lead on their second possession with a lightning-quick three-play, 49-second drive that consumed 61 yards and ended with Myers’s 20-yard pass to Antonio Nunn in the back left corner of the end zone.
Sloman got the RedHawks on the board with a career-best 53-yard field goal on the first play of the second quarter. The senior’s field goal ties Gary Gussman’s 1987 kick at Cincinnati for the third-longest in program history, surpassed only by Trevor Cook’s 55-yard kick in 2009 against Toledo and Chad Seitz’s 54-yard boot in 1995 at Michigan.
Two RedHawks missed tackles on Jaret Patterson’s 82-yard touchdown run that helped Buffalo expand its lead to 14-3 with 11:51 left in the second quarter.
Miami capitalized on a key Buffalo penalty to cut the lead to 14-10. The Bulls were penalized for illegal contact with the center on another Sloman field goal attempt. Given new life, the RedHawks scored on Gabbert’s one-yard plunge with 6:50 left before halftime.
True freshman Lonnie Phelps forced backup quarterback Kyle Vantrease into a fumble recovered by third-year sophomore defensive tackle Josh Maize on the Buffalo 15-yard line with 2:42 left in the game to seal the win.