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And In That Corner … The Miami RedHawks and former Notre Dame assistant Chuck Martin

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Notre Dame has not faced Miami (OH) in more than a century. Irish fans can be forgiven for not knowing much about the RedHawks aside from their head coach looking a bit familiar. To offer a quick education, let’s turn to Brady Pfister, beat writer for The Miami Student:

DF: Starting with football-specific questions, senior quarterback Gus Ragland leads the way, first entering the scene halfway through last season. It would be hard to top his initial debut — throwing 15 touchdowns and no interceptions over a six-game winning streak — but how has he fared this season in the face of those somewhat high expectations? His statistics (881 yards, eight touchdowns, two interceptions in four games) certainly bode well, though a completion percentage of 52.1 may leave something to be desired.
BP: Head coach Chuck Martin’s offensive design makes it hard to evaluate Ragland based on his numbers. Miami wants to establish a run game to open up the downfield passing game later on, so the 52.1 completion percentage is in large part a result of the multiple deep shots the ‘Hawks tend to take throughout the course of a game. Either Ragland’s man catches the pass for a big gain, or no one catches it at all.

Ragland has been the steady hand these RedHawks have needed to compete in every game they have played. He controls the offense well, makes good reads, and puts his receivers in positions to make plays. Last week at Central Michigan, Ragland took his performance to another level, throwing for 217 yards for two touchdowns while adding another score on the ground. If Ragland plays like he did against the Chippewas, the Miami offense adds another level of potency, but if he simply manages the game, then the ‘Hawks can struggle to truly play up to their potential.

Notre Dame has yet to face an offense with a truly threatening passing attack. Miami’s may not be the most vaunted in the country, but it might be more focused that way than any of Temple, Georgia, Boston College or Michigan State. Specifically, Irish coach Brian Kelly has worried about his secondary’s approach to down-and-distance situations. Does Ragland have the experience, even veteran savvy, needed to expose that possible Notre Dame vulnerability?

Miami senior quarterback may be the best pure-passer Notre Dame has faced yet this season. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

As much as these plays may come from Ragland’s, the emphasis should be on his targets. For a defensive backfield lacking confidence, having James Gardner, Jared Murphy and Ryan Smith can cause headaches, having proven to be able to make tough catches Ragland sends their way. However, if the Irish take advantage of their talent on the defensive side of the ball, they can turn touchdown passes into interceptions, allowing them to pull away. For Miami to compete in this game, Ragland needs to connect on some potentially risky downfield passes.

Ragland prefers to target junior receiver James Gardner. Listed at 6-foot-4 and 216 pounds, Gardner will tower over whatever Irish cornerback lines up opposite him. Is that how he has found his way to 294 yards on 16 catches this season?
Whether it be in the red zone or blazing past corners for deep balls, Gardner is a reassuring presence for Ragland. If the ball is anywhere in the vicinity of the big man, chances are he’s coming down with it. In the ‘Hawk’s week 2 matchup against Austin Peay, Gardner played a huge role with two deep touchdowns, but his snaps were limited the following week against Cincinnati. Late in the game, the RedHawks were in the red zone in need of a score, but were unable to make big catches in the end zone. I truly believe if Gardner was on the field, Miami would have been able to turn those incompletions into a touchdown.

Defensively, it seems Miami may have the defensive backs to capitalize on Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s inexperience and accuracy questions. The RedHawks already have six interceptions this year. Should that be a viable Irish concern?
Absolutely. Miami’s strength is its staunch defensive backfield, which refers to itself as “The Mob.” Leading the way is fifth-year cornerback Heath Harding, the vocal leader of the team as well as a disruptive force on the field. Harding, a top-10 prospect at his position in this year’s draft class according to multiple scouting experts, has collected 22 tackles this year and is excellent in run support. Joining Harding is senior safety Tony Reid. He has a knack for coming up big and is always around the ball. Reid has made 23 tackles on the year while being a part of three turnovers, all coming in just one quarter. Unfortunately for Miami, it will have to go without Reid in the first half Saturday due to a targeting penalty in the second half of last week’s matchup at Central Michigan. (Oddly enough, Reid incurred a targeting penalty against Central Michigan in 2016, as well.)

Before going macro, what might have I missed that Notre Dame fans should be aware of before this weekend?
Running backs Kenny Young and Alonzo Smith provide a potent running back duo. Are they going to put up huge numbers each and every week? No, but if Notre Dame does decide to lock in on Gardner and Miami’s receivers, the RedHawks are just fine with feeding Young and Smith.

Junior linebacker Junior McMullen missed last week due to injury, but senior backup Sam Connolly had a career day in his place with nine tackles and an interception. Between McMullen, Connolly and senior Brad Koenig, the Miami defensive second unit has depth, versatility and proven production.

On a broader scale, Miami’s momentum from last year’s second half seems to have dissipated quickly. That 0-6 to 6-6 story was quite something, even with the one-point St. Petersburg Bowl loss to Mississippi State. Now at 2-2, with losses to Marshall and Cincinnati, is that momentum all gone? Or is there still great hope since both of those were non-conference defeats?
The 2-2 record at this point definitely is not what RedHawk fans were hoping for. What makes it even more disappointing is both losses were very winnable games. Special teams blunders cost the ‘Hawks at Marshall. Even more frustrating though is the loss to in-state rival Cincinnati. For the majority of the game, Miami was controlling the ball, making stops on defense and looked to be on its way to its first win over the Bearcats since 2005. Then, Ragland threw a pick-six with a few minutes to go, giving Cincinnati the lead for good.

There is still momentum with this team. It is only four or five plays away from being 4-0, have faced only one MAC opponent and have experienced players in Harding, Ragland and Reid who know how to overcome tough losses. That ability to bounce back was displayed last week at Central Michigan. The ‘Hawks jumped all over the Chippewas early and cruised the rest of the way.  If Miami had come out flat last week, that would have been a major sign the RedHawks don’t have the toughness to live up to expectations. That was not the case. This team can still do big things and take the next step.

Entering the season there was distinct conversation of the RedHawks making a run at the MAC championship, at the least the Eastern Division. Is that still an expectation?
Yes. The two losses thus far are undoubtedly frustrating, but Miami finds itself 1-0 in conference play. It does not have to face the top two teams in the MAC West, Western Michigan and Toledo, this year and start off with struggling Bowling Green and Kent State following the trip to South Bend. The matchup that likely will decide the MAC East is a Tuesday night Halloween collision between the ‘Hawks and Ohio in Athens. In 2016, the Bobcats took the MAC East crown because of their head-to-head win at Miami. I would not be surprised if this year’s game has similar ramifications in deciding if Miami can finally get back to the MAC title game.

Let’s turn to Chuck Martin. This space does not usually spend undue amounts of time on an opposing coach, but he holds particular interest for Notre Dame fans for obvious reasons. He is now in his fourth season in Oxford. Safe to say the honeymoon is over, but he still is enjoying versions of success. What are Miami fans’ expectations of Martin?

In his fourth season with the RedHawks, it may be getting to be time for Chuck Martin’s team to show some success. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Martin has always been a realistic coach. When he arrived in December 2013, he did not promise overnight resurgence. Rather, he spoke of an incremental rebuild to get the right type of players in his program to play his style of football. The rebuild has not been flashy, yet Miami has steadily improved in Martin’s three years, from 2-10 to 3-9 and 6-6.

This is the year it all needs to come together for Martin. He has a veteran quarterback with weapons around him along with a defense filled with playmakers. Miami has been very patient with Martin, giving him time to make the program his own. Now it is his time to deliver. He did so last year by rallying to rattle off six straight wins to make a bowl game. He will need to do so again this season in order to keep himself off the hot seat.

You spend more time around him than anyone here does. What sense do you get of his long-term plan? Again, this is a weighted question in Irish eyes.
With many coaches in the MAC, you can tell they are trying to build a flashy program in order to get head coaching offers two or three years down the road with bigger schools. Martin has never appeared to be this kind of coach. His goal first and foremost is to “Graduate Champions,” a motto used throughout Miami athletics referring to developing the athlete in order to equip him or her to make an impact after sports. In hearing him talk at press conferences, it is apparent Martin cares deeply for his players as men, not just athletes. Through and through, Chuck Martin has seemed committed to Miami football. If a Power 5 school came calling after this year, would he consider a move? Probably. But I do not believe his sole purpose at Miami is getting that call like other MAC coaches.

The spread this week has risen to more than three touchdowns. Let’s presume you expect Notre Dame to win — if you don’t, please, say so. Can the RedHawks keep Saturday close enough to provide some second half consternation for Notre Dame fans?
Talent-wise, it is a mismatch. Martin explained it in a distinct way, saying Notre Dame is the team in the school yard that gets the first 85 picks, leaving Miami with what’s left. This is not to say that the RedHawks lack talent, but it is a tall task for a MAC team to compete with the ability, strength and speed of the Irish.

On the other hand, Miami is a team set up to keep games close by holding the ball to keep potent offenses on the sideline. This bodes well for the RedHawks in a game where they are outmatched such as this one, so don’t be surprised if the game is still competitive going into the second half.

While we are at it, let’s go ahead and ask for a score prediction. This is the internet, after all.
I think Miami is able to put some drives together early to make things interesting and keep the Irish offense off the field. With the knack the ‘Hawks have for causing turnovers, I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes a while for the Irish to fully pull away with the halftime score sitting somewhere around 17-7.

Late in the third quarter, the speed and strength of Notre Dame should take over. Miami is headed in the right direction and remains hopeful for a MAC championship, but there’s just too much talent to overcome in this one.

Prediction: Notre Dame 38, Miami 10