Through its first six games of the 2019 season, no one saw the Miami RedHawks as a conference championship team.
The RedHawks had a lackluster 2-4 record, mostly from an underwhelming non-conference performance.
Miami lost to the Iowa Hawkeyes to start the season. After a home win over Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) opponent Tennessee Tech, the team suffered blowout losses to Cincinnati (35-13) and Ohio State (76-5).
All three of Miami’s non-conference losses ended the season in the Associated Press’s (AP) College Football Top 25 Poll. Still, it’s hard to keep morale going into conference play with such a lopsided record.
“The start of our season in 2019 was anything but glorious,” Senior Safety Sterling Weatherford said.
After a home win over Buffalo to start Mid-American Conference (MAC) play, the RedHawks dropped an away game against cross-division opponent Western Michigan, dropping their record to 2-4.
It was a home win against Northern Illinois that started the win streak. Miami beat the Huskies at Yager Stadium, 34-27, to improve to 3-4.
From there, the RedHawks won the next four games, including a win over rival Ohio University in Athens.
While the team lost its season finale to Ball State, its 6-2 conference record was good enough to win the MAC East Division and make a trip to Detroit for the MAC Championship Game.
The RedHawks beat Central Michigan, 26-21, to win its first conference championship since 2010.
So far, this year’s team has had a strikingly similar season.
In its non-conference slate, the ’Hawks beat FCS opponent Long Island, but lost to Cincinnati, Minnesota and Army.
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Again, Miami won its first MAC matchup at home, but lost to Eastern Michigan, dropping its record to 2-4.
Of course, this is exactly where the RedHawks are comfortable. This time around, the team isn’t panicking.
“It’s just the ups and downs of the season,” Weatherford said. “I was talking about it the other day just how good of a taste 2019 left in everybody’s mouth.”
Wide receivers coach Israel Woolfork sees plenty of parallels between 2019 and this season. Young players like Weatherford, Ivan Pace Jr, Lonnie Phelps, Brett Gabbert and Caleb Shaffer are just a few names who stepped into larger roles in 2019. All besides Weatherford were true first-years in 2019, and now are key cogs on the 2021 team.
This year, players like second year defensive back/linebacker Matthew Salopek, third-year defensive back Cecil Singleton and Kansas State transfer running back Keyon Mozee have stepped up this season.
Gabber, the 2019 MAC Freshman of the Year, has only played in four games so far due to injuries, but fourth-year quarterback A.J. Mayer has done an admirable job filling in for the starting quarterback.
“You look at the defense, they’ve had a lot of young guys step up the past couple weeks,” Woolfork said.” The offensive line has had some young guys step up. And then the quarterbacks. Brett kinda stepped up in 2019, AJ came in and threw some ropes.”
This time, it was Akron who may provide the team with the win it needs to break through. The Zips came to Oxford and lost, 34-21. The RedHawks were dominant in the win, as seniors Jaylon Bester and Andrew Homer both scored touchdowns.
Homer and Bester both played huge roles in the conference championship season. Both were injured for the entire 2020 season, and have been in and out of the lineup with nagging injuries.
Both of them are getting healthy at the right time, along with the rest of the team.
“A lot of times, we seem to get healthy later in the year, I don’t know why,” Head Coach Chuck Martin said.
The team’s newfound health arrives just in time for the bulk of the conference schedule. The team faces off against rival Ohio University in the Battle of the Bricks, then plays two straight home games against Buffalo and Bowling Green before ending its season on the road against Kent State.
Woolfork says the team plays better as the season progresses.
“If you look at it, our best games are how we play from October to November. That’s when (we) start to get it together, so I’m super excited for that,” Woolfork said.
Woolfork and Weatherford both talked about trusting the process and playing the way the team needs to play going forward. Still, it’s easier said than done after the team’s lackluster start.
It’s so much harder when you’re in it,” Weatherford said. “When you’re in the struggle, when you’re 2-4, or don’t have a winning record, it’s a lot harder to see the bigger picture and just stay composed and trust that we’re doing it the right way and it’ll pay off by the end.”
Woolfork is confident the team can replicate 2019’s success, and praised Martin’s leadership in helping them get there.
“I think with our team and the way Coach Martin coaches us and how we live our life is, as the year goes on we continue to play good football,” Woolfork said. “Because we don’t change who we are, we don’t change our practice habits.”
Woolfork summed up the team’s mindset simply.
“We stay the course.”