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Pfister: The 2019 RedHawks brought Miami football back

<p>The Miami RedHawks celebrate their Mid-American Conference Championship victory Dec. 7 at Ford Field.</p>

The Miami RedHawks celebrate their Mid-American Conference Championship victory Dec. 7 at Ford Field.

When the clock hit double zeros on Miami University football’s 2019 campaign after the RedHawks fell to Louisiana in the Lending Tree Bowl, the media had one last shot to pick the brain of Miami’s ever-opinionated head coach, Chuck Martin, before he turned the page to the 2020 season.

So I asked him what he thought the legacy of this team would be. And, for the only time I can remember in my three years and dozens of Martin pressers, he gave me a rather brief answer. 

“I don’t know,” Martin said. “That’s for you guys to decide.”

OK, Chuck. Challenge accepted: The 2019 RedHawks will forever be remembered as a clutch group of young players who overachieved to officially bring Miami football back. 

This team made its living on winning close games no one really gave them much of a chance to compete in. The RedHawks thrived in the underdog role, riding that momentum all the way into Detroit to steal the Mid-American Conference Championship from Central Michigan. 

You could feel it starting in the offseason. There was almost a sense of relief to be back under the radar in the MAC. It felt liberating for these young players to be able to go out and prove themselves without the suffocating pressure of expectation. 

Coming into 2017, the RedHawks possessed the momentum of a six-game regular season winning streak with high hopes of taking the next step to win a conference title. Instead, they couldn’t get out of their own way and squandered a perfect combination of talent and experience to finish 5-7. 

The following season, the ’Hawks returned quarterback Gus Ragland, a stable of experienced running backs and a game-changing receiver in James Gardner, but close losses and injuries caused Miami to underachieve once again. 

After two years of promise and disappointment, the 2019 RedHawks finally returned to playing with low expectations.

I, like many other pundits around the league, thought 5-7 was the ceiling for this team, considering the loss of team leader and linebacker Brad Koenig along with other mainstays on the defense combined with a true freshman taking snaps at quarterback. 

No problem. It was almost as if this attitude freed the young ’Hawks to play aggressively in close games, instead of simply trying not to lose. 

Throughout the entire 2019 season, Miami was favored by bettors in Las Vegas just three times. By the end of the year, the RedHawks earned the nickname “SpreadHawks” for their ability to win close games experts thought they would lose on their way to an 8-6 finish.

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They won in a variety of different ways, too. Rarely was it pretty. 

Unlike many championship teams, on paper, the RedHawks were unimpressive, especially on the offensive side of the football. Miami averaged just more than 24 points per game, good for ninth in the league while only Eastern Michigan and Akron rushed for less yards per game than the ’Hawks. 

Yet, week after week, they found gritty ways to squeeze out a victory. 

Miami benefited from a timely 47-yard touchdown run from running back Jaylon Bester to steal a rainy road victory from Kent State, held off Nathan Rourke, the MAC’s best quarterback, against Ohio and leaned on kicker Sam Sloman to put the MAC Championship out of reach from Central Michigan.  

This was a tough team that rarely overpowered anyone but stuck together better than any program in the league. 

And as a result, the team is in the best condition it’s enjoyed since Ben Roethlisberger played here. 

In 2020, the RedHawks return starting quarterback Brett Gabbert, his two favorite receivers Jack Sorenson and James Maye along with Tyree Shelton and Bester in the backfield. The defense has a bright future thanks to freshman standouts including Ivan Pace and Lonnie Phelps. 

But what has me optimistic about the future of this program is the apparent shift in culture that has transpired over the last three seasons. In 2017, the RedHawks choked away close games regularly despite being one of the most talented MAC teams.

2019 was different. This team relished the opportunity to compete in tight contests. Other Miami teams I have watched dreaded such games. 

Sure, Miami will go from the hunters to the hunted in 2020, but the core group of players Chuck Martin has developed in his program proved this season that they possess the necessary tenacity to consistently compete for a MAC crown. 

And for that, the Miami RedHawks are back. 

There’s your team’s legacy, Chuck.