Tuesday’s Mid-American Conference game at Ball State isn’t the regular-season finale Miami figured on going into the season.
After their stirring finish to the 2016 season – a record-setting six consecutive wins for a 6-6 record that clinched a MAC East co-championship and bowl berth – the RedHawks had good reason to expect that the matchup with the Cardinals would’ve served more as a coronation than a condolence.
Critical mistakes at key moments have left Miami needing a win in Muncie, Ind., to finish 5-7 overall and 4-4 in the MAC with nothing more than pride on the line. The RedHawks have lost five games by eight or fewer points and four by less than a touchdown.
“We’re thinking about the seniors,” junior linebacker Brad Koenig said after the RedHawks’ backbreaking 27-24 loss to Eastern Michigan on Wednesday that doomed any hopes of post-season play. “We’re disappointed that we’re not sending them off with a bowl game. It’s all about sending them out with a win – sending them out on a positive note.”
Miami coach Chuck Martin had other reasons to believe his team would avoid a letdown in a relatively meaningless game against a team that has struggled all season.
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“I don’t have a concern,” the fourth-year coach said. “Our kids have competed hard every week. Watching (the Eastern Michigan) game (on videotape), I felt better. We played hard. We’re improving in a lot of areas. For our seniors, this is their last game, and we’re concerned about how they go out. For us, there’s still a lot to play for. We’re still building a program. It’s disappointing about how year the wound up, but with that disappointment comes hard lessons.”
If Miami still was in contention for something – a division championship, a bowl berth – the game at Ball State (2-9, 0-7 MAC West) would be characterized as a “trap” game.
The Cardinals rank 11th in the 12-team MAC in scoring and total offense and last in total defense, interceptions and turnover margin. They do lead the conference in fewest penalties and penalty yardage and in time of possession. They opened the season with a tight, three-point loss at Illinois, followed by two wins, but they go into Tuesday’s game on an eight-game losing streak. Opponents have scored at least 31 points in each game and more than 50 in five, including a 63-17 loss at Northern Illinois on Nov. 9. Ball State is coming off a 40-24 home loss to Buffalo.
Freshman wide receiver Justin Hall leads in average receptions with 6.6 per game, while sophomore running back Malik Dunner leads with an average of 25.2 kickoff return yards and fifth-year senior defensive end Anthony Winbush has forced a MAC-high five fumbles and is tied for second in the MAC with 12 sacks, 11 unassisted. Winbush needs one sack to set the Ball State career record.
Cardinals junior place-kicker Nick Dowd is in his first season at Ball State after transferring from Miami.
“They’ve had some injuries at key positions, much like us,” Martin said. “They have been able to play with teams in spurts. Typically, they play pretty good first halves, but with their injuries, their depth has been depleted. They run the ball effectively, and defensively, they have one of the leading sack guys in the country.
“Our focus is on us cleaning up, continuing to play hard and play smarter. If we can get a couple of positions to step up and play, we’re going to be where we want to be.”
The Miami-Ball State series dates back to 1931, but the game this season matching two teams just a little more than 70 miles apart is enhanced by the start of the Red Bird Rivalry trophy, which will be awarded to the winner. This season’s game is the first of what the MAC has granted “rivalry status,” meaning the teams will meet every season. Only Toledo and Bowling Green have been granted the same status by the MAC.