The 2017 Miami Football RedHawks appeared full of promise in late August as students returned to Oxford for the fall semester. Coming off a six-game regular-season win streak and a bowl berth against an SEC foe, the Red and White seemed poised to make a run at a Mid-American Conference championship with major players including Gus Ragland, Heath Harding, and James Gardner all returning.
Fast forward to today -- the season has come and gone with the 'Hawks finishing 5-7, with no hope of going to a bowl game. Those early days of buzz have turned into wondering what could have been for this year's team, leaving Miami fans to question just what went wrong.
Though much of the year was a disappointment, the 'Hawks had pleasant moments to remember. However, they also had moments to forget along with memories that will always haunt Miamians -- here's a look back at the 2017 season.
The Good: James Gardner
Coming into the 2017 season, junior receiver James Gardner needed to take the next step in his development to become a complete receiver in order to enable Miami's offense to excel. After a 2016 campaign when the Florida-native hauled in 45 passes for 750 yards and six touchdowns, Gardner racked up 927 receiving yards for 11 touchdowns, good for fifth best in the FBS and second in the MAC.
"The biggest thing with James is he is elite down the field on a go route, elite on bank posts," RedHawk head coach Chuck Martin said of Gardner following a big game against Ohio. "He has become a complete receiver -- when the ball is outside his framework, he can twist and twerk and reach and still make an unbelievable catch."
The pinnacle of Gardner's season came in South Bend, IN against a Top-10 Notre Dame team in which the 6'4'' junior reeled in five catches for 115 yards and both of Miami's touchdowns. This game solidified that not only is Gardner a top-tier MAC receiver, but one of the top receiving threats in America.
The Bad: Billy Bahl
After being replaced by Gus Ragland in the final six games of the 2016 season, many Miamians thought they would never hear of Bahl for the remainder of his Miami career. That all changed when Ragland was injured against Bowling Green, leaving the Illinois-native the keys to the RedHawk offense. In the four games Bahl played in, three of them were losses in which the junior completed a mere 52.1 percent of his passes.
Specifically frustrating has been Bahl's inability to perform in clutch situations. When the RedHawks travelled to Kent State in mid-October, the Miami offense sputtered as Bahl only completed 12-of-29 passes. However, early in the fourth quarter, the 'Hawks were first and goal at the Kent State eight-yard line down 17-14. With three shots to take the lead, Bahl missed on each throw. Miami ended up missing a field goal on the ensuing play and was never able to come close to scoring again, giving Kent State their first FBS win of the season.
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Sixteen days later when Miami took on the Ohio Bobcats, the RedHawks were in need of a win in order to stay in contention for the MAC East. However, in the opening drive, Bahl threw a pass into the teeth of Bobcat coverage, leading to an interception. A few plays later, Ohio scored to go up 14-0 early in the most important game of the year. Later in the first half, score sat at 14-all, but Bahl once again threw away momentum with an interception, setting OU up at the Miami four-yard line.
Like the rest of Miami's season, Bahl did not have a statistically terrible season, but failed to make the necessary plays to win games at important junctions in games.
The Ugly: The Battle of the Bell
For the first time since 2005, it appeared that Miami was on its way to defeating the Cincinnati Bearcats, as the stage was set perfectly for the RedHawks' official return to relevance in front of over 20,000 fans under the lights.
For the first 58:53, the RedHawks made key plays to turn the Bearcats over, control the ball and play fundamental football.
However, with 1:07 left in the game on that fateful September evening, the wheels fell off of the entire 2017 season. After freshman running back Jaylon Bester returned a kickoff only five yards and a miscommunication between Coach Martin and the officials to get a timeout called, the 'Hawks faced third and seven from deep in their own territory. Looking to pick up the first down underneath, Ragland threw an interception returned for a touchdown to give the Bearcats the lead for good.
"The kids played their hearts out," Martin said minutes after the biggest debacle of his career. "Very, very difficult defeat -- the most difficult defeat I've had in 25 years probably by a wide margin and the reason it's so difficult is because how hard our kids played."
Though the RedHawks were able to win four other games following UC, the feel of the entire season drastically changed because of that one play, while the optimism that felt so real suddenly vanished. The RedHawks would go on to find other ways to snatch defeat out of the hands of certain victory for the rest of the year -- whether it be by snapping a ball off the arm of a fullback on the one-yard line, missing a chip shot field goal to tie the game or arguing with referees to create a 45-yard penalty, the trend of undisciplined football started against the Bearcats and remained for the whole season.
As Miami closes the book on 2017 and looks to see what the story of 2018 will write, hope remains for the years to come -- the 'Hawks return plenty of assets including Gardner, Ragland and countless others. But no matter how bright the future may seem, RedHawk fans will always be left to wonder what this team could have accomplished.