DETROIT —Travion Banks blew a kiss as he reached the end zone.
Chuck Martin threw his arms in the air, and the crowd roared.
Although Banks’ game-changing pick-six with 10 minutes left was called back by a penalty, it gave Miami possession and killed the Chippewas’ longest drive of the second half up to that point.
Ten minutes of game time later, the Miami RedHawks were Mid-American Conference Champions for the first time since 2010.
“I don’t really know what I’m thinking right now,” redshirt junior wide receiver Jack Sorenson said. “It’s kind of like a surreal experience. I haven’t been able to process my thoughts.”
They beat Central Michigan, 26-21, Saturday at Ford Field to claim head coach Chuck Martin’s first conference title at Miami.
“I haven’t had [the trophy] in my hands yet,” Martin said at the postgame press conference. “I assume it’s heavy. I hope it’s heavy. It looks nice."
Friday, as the RedHawks walked onto Ford Field in Detroit, one Miami player gasped, “Holy shit.”
He was awestruck by the NFL stadium and site of Miami’s first MAC Championship game appearance since 2010.
Saturday, that feeling was felt by the 22,427 people in attendance, as Mo Thomas returned the opening kickoff 97 yards.
It was the longest kick return in MAC title game history and put the RedHawks inside Central Michigan’s 5-yard line. They scored the first touchdown of the game two plays later.
Miami controlled the momentum, and it fed right into the pass rush.
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With timely defense and an aggressive front line, the RedHawks kept Central Michigan’s explosive offense at bay in the first quarter. Miami led 7-0 at the end of the period.
As the first ended, the Chippewas returned to form.
Their offense, which ranked third in yards per game in the MAC during the regular season, assembled a 14-play, 90-yard drive. Senior Tommy Lazzaro capped it with a 21-yard sprint to the end zone.
The defenses continued to dictate the action. After Miami went three-and-out, the Chippewas followed suit.
But, instead of punting, CMU head coach Jim McElwain decided to fake it. The trick play failed, and the RedHawks took over inside the Chippewas’ 20.
Miami couldn’t advance the ball either, settling for a 41-yard field goal by senior kicker Sam Sloman to go back ahead, 10-7.
On CMU’s final drive of the half, senior quarterback Quinten Dormady found redshirt freshman wide receiver Tyrone Scott for an 11-yard touchdown, giving the Chippewas their first lead.
Three failed Miami deep shots later, halftime arrived.
Fourteen-10, Central Michigan.
“I told the kids at halftime, down 14-10, ‘Feels kind of at home guys,’” Martin said. ‘“Just right where [we’re used to].’”
Martin said he needed someone to make a play. He got two.
Freshman wide receiver James Maye started Miami’s first drive of the half with a 35-yard catch down the right sideline.
Three plays later, Sorenson took a screen pass 31 yards to the house to give Miami a 17-14 edge.
Miami’s defense kept Central Michigan off the scoreboard all quarter, keeping its lead into the fourth.
At the start of the final quarter, the RedHawks charged inside the Chippewas’ 10-yard line. But after a reverse to redshirt sophomore wide receiver Jalen Walker backfired, Miami settled for another Sloman field goal.
Trailing by six and needing some momentum, Central Michigan put together its longest drive of the second half to that point. The Chippewas gained to the Miami 27.
And then Travion Banks intercepted the ball.
That fueled a four-minute drive from Miami that, once again, ended in a Sloman field goal. The RedHawks led by two scores, 23-14.
Racing the clock, the Chippewas used six minutes to answer Miami. Lazzaro ran for a one-yard touchdown, putting them down by only two, 23-21.
With a minute and a half left, Central Michigan attempted an onside.
And recovered it, taking it to the end zone.
Flag on the field — offsides on the kicking team.
This time, the ball illegally bounced out of bounds, giving Miami the ball at the CMU 30.
Junior running back Jaylon Bester carried the ball three times, draining the clock and Central Michigan of all its timeouts.
On fourth-and-4 with 28 seconds left, Sloman hit a 42-yard field goal. He was carried off the field by his teammates, as the crowd chanted his name.
“I was just ready for the last 30 seconds to be over,” Sloman said.
Martin piggybacked off Sloman: “Same as me, bro.”
Central Michigan ran six plays, all passes. Dormady’s last-play heave was batted down.
Victorious, Miami stormed the field.
Some players cried. Some smiled.
They hugged their teammates and found their families.
They’ll play one more game together — a bowl game.
They’ll enter, labeled “MAC champs.”