The Mid-American Conference Football Championship at Ford Field was full #MACtion on Saturday afternoon in Detroit. The Miami Redhawks came into the game with a 7-5 record after winning the MAC East Division despite being picked to finish third in the west by the pre-season coach’s poll.
Central Michigan’s path to the championship game was even more improbable as the Chippewas were picked to finish dead last in the overall conference pre-season poll, but clawed their way into the final with a 8-4 record.
NCAA Division 1 football often lacks the parity seen in other college athletics that often makes events like March Madness a draw for it’s unpredictability and underdog stories.
Football is a different animal. The underdog rarely wins. The college football playoff has seen only ten different schools represented in the five years since its inception. That is what made this year so special for the MAC conference. Parity abounded.
Ohio University and Toledo were picked to be the teams representing their respective divisions in the MAC conference championship game in the coach’s preseason poll. Toledo came in last in the West Division and Ohio, the far and away favorite to win the conference in August, only outpaced two teams in their division by December.
So what else could we expect to cap off the season than a tightly contested game that ebbed and flowed without providing any indication who would come out on top until the very last second ran off the clock and a Hail Mary attempt fell to the ground?
The game featured a 98-yard kickoff return that came just a yard short of a touchdown on the very first play of the game, a fake punt attempt deep in CMU’s own territory, a 48-yard booming field goal by Kicker of the Year candidate Sam Sloman and an onside kick that was ran in for the likely game-winning touchdown, only to be called back for an offside penalty.
Fans of both teams were treated to college football at its absolute best as CMU and Miami provided spectators hope that their team would be crowned champions even in the final moments as the ball hung in the air as outstretched arms desperately clawed to bring it in.
The game started in a hurry as Miami returner, Maurice Thomas, took possession of the kickoff at the Miami 1-yard line and proceeded to streak down the sideline with a wall of blockers ahead of him before cutting across the field and being brought down just a yard short of the end zone. The 98-yard kickoff return started Miami off with an early opportunity that they would capitalize on with running back Jaylon Bester leaping into the end zone for the first points of the game. Miami Kicker Sam Sloman booted the extra point and CMU found themselves down 7-0 just over a minute into the contest.
Both teams traded short-lived drives the rest of the quarter and Miami took a 7-0 lead into the second.
CMU opened the second quarter continuing their drive and was able to move the ball through a combination of their two quarterbacks, Tommy Lazzaro and Quinten Dormady, near the Miami Redzone. On 3rd and 3 from the Miami 21, Lazzaro ran the option from shotgun and busted around the left side of the line and in for the Chippewa touchdown. Ryan Tice’s extra point kick tied things up 7-7 with 11:46 remaining in the half.
The next two drives stalled out and CMU was forced to punt on 4th and 6 from their own 19-yard line. In a move that surely surprised all in attendance, CMU elected to run a fake punt and snapped it to one of the punt protectors who attempted to catch the Miami punt team sleeping. The play was unsuccessful as Oakley Lavallii was stuffed at the line of scrimmage. CMU’s defense took the field for the second time with their backs against the wall, but managed to hold Miami to a three and out and force the Miami field goal attempt.
Sam Loman lined up and kicked a 41-yard field goal that soared through the uprights with relative ease and gave Miami a 10-7 lead.
Miami and CMU traded possessions once again before CMU took the ball at 2:57 for what became the last drive of the half. Dormady was sacked on first down by Andrew Sharp, but came back on second with a much needed 24-yard pass to JaCorey Sullivan. This took the Chippewas to the Miami 23-yard line. CMU would manage to get themselves into a third and five situation with 1:01 left in the half.
CMU elected to run with Kalil Pimpleton for a gain of 7 yards, which gave the Chippewas a fresh set of downs inside the redone and with time waning in the half. CMU called timeout on third and ten with 36 seconds left in the half from the Miami 11. Dormady alluded pressure and rolled right out of the pocket where he found Tyrone Scott for the 11-yard touchdown catch. Tice buried the extra point and gave the Chippewas the final points of the half, leading Miami 14-10.
CMU’s first drive of the second half was stalled after 4 plays and a punt. Miami freshman quarterback Brett Gabbert took the Redhawks on a fast and furious drive completing passes of 35 yards to James Maye and 31 yards to Jack Soreneson with Sorenson’s catch delivering Miami their second touchdown of the game and a 17-14 lead.
Much like the first quarter, both teams managed to find their groove and a quarter that begin in a fury ended with several drives ending without points.
The fourth quarter opened with Miami driving again before stalling out at the Chippewa 15 yard line. Sloman came in again and easily knocked through the 33 yard kick for a 20-14 Redhawk lead.
CMU’s next drive began with several solid plays as Dormady competed a 9 yard pass to Da’Quaun Jamison and Lazzaro hit Tony Poljan for 24-yards. The completion brought the Chippewas into Redhawk territory and after a roughing the passer penalty on the ensuing play, the Chippewas found themselves at the Redhawk 27-yard line and a chance at taking the lead.
There would be no such occasion, however, as Dormady’s next pass was intercepted by Miami defensive back Travion Banks and ran back for a touchdown, before being called back on an illegal block in the back penalty. Nevertheless, the play stifled CMU’s first comeback attempt. Gabbert got to work again, hitting Sorenson on three times on the drive. CMU held the Redhawks to a 4th and 4 at the CMU 30 when Sloman came on the field to attempt a 48-yard field goal. CMU’s best hope was a miss that would keep the game at just a 6 point differential. Sloman left little doubt that there would be such a chance.
The kicker delivered a strike and gave the Redhawks a 9-point lead at 23-14 with 4:06 left in the 4th quarter.
CMU was not done fighting. They started their drive at their own 20 yard line and proceeded to drive with speed and efficiency down the field before finally driving in for a rushing touchdown behind a diving Lazzaro. Tice’s kick made the game 23-21 with 1:24 on the clock.
CMU attempted the onside kick, which was caught off a bounce by the kicking team’s Rolliann Sturkey and ran all the way in for a score to the screams of a crowded Ford Field before being called off for an offside penalty. Another off-side penalty would be declined on the second attempt and Miami took possession at the CMU 30-yard line. CMU had one chance to get the ball back: do not give up a first down. The Chippewas did what they had to do and forced the Redhawks to kick a field goal on 4th and 4. Sloman booted yet another field goal, this time from 42 yards away.
The ensuing kickoff was sent through the end zone for a touchback and CMU took the ball at their own 25-yard line with just 28 seconds to go in the game. CMU managed to drive the ball 20 yards and stop the clock with just 6-seconds to play. Dormady rolled right as CMU receivers ran towards the end zone in a pack. Dormady heaved the ball as high and far as he could. The ball hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity and came down into the outstretched arms of both Redhawk defenders and CMU receivers before falling to the ground. Incomplete.
Miami players rushed the field in jubilation after securing the 26-21 Mid-American Conference championship.
CMU’s improbable run felt just as incomplete as the Hail Mary attempt. After a season defying the odds and rising from the bottom of the MAC conference standings, they found themselves just short of making their story complete. Both teams played their hearts out and it is only a shame that one team had to lose.
CMU’s season is not finished, however, as they move on to play in the New Mexico Bowl against San Diego State. Miami is also going bowling as they will face off against Louisiana in the Lending Tree Bowl.
Congratulations to both teams on stellar seasons.
Players of the Game:
Offense – Jack Sorenson (WR)
Defense – Emmanuel Rugamba (DB)
Special Teams – Sam Sloman (K)