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2019 would be a great time for Chuck Martin’s Miami (Ohio) to win some close games

Martin’s program-building bona fides are strong, but his close-game conservatism has held the RedHawks back.

NCAA Football: Miami (Ohio) at Army
Chuck Martin
Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

One fact of life that becomes more true to me with each passing year is that we are all paradoxes in some way. The factors that give us our best traits also give us our worst.

In football terms, Miami (Ohio) head coach Chuck Martin might be the most perfect example of this. In his five seasons with the RedHawks, he has proven to be one of the country’s most methodical program builders.

When he moved to Oxford, Miami was at an all-time low point.

  • The RedHawks had gone 0-12 in 2013 with an S&P+ rating of minus-29.0 adjusted points per game, easily its worst ever.
  • In his first year, he improved that rating to minus-18.7.
  • In his second year, minus-13.5.
  • In his third year, minus-6.1.
  • In his fourth year, minus-2.2.
  • In his fifth year, minus-0.7.

By the end of 2018, he was fielding a top-80 team for the second straight season. Miami hadn’t advanced that high in S&P+ since 2005. That is undeniable, if relatively slow, success. But those same conservative, inch-at-a-time tendencies that have served Miami well in the macro sense have backfired quite a bit in the micro.

In five seasons under Martin, the RedHawks have gone 7-20 in one-possession games. The word “conservative” takes a darker tone here in the way that Miami appears to aim for risk-free, sure-to-punt play-calling.

Maybe the best recent example of this comes from one of their rare close wins.

Late in the 2018 season, riding a close-game losing streak of nine straight dating back to the woefully conservative 17-16 loss to Mississippi State in the 2016 St. Petersburg Bowl, the RedHawks exploded to a 28-7 halftime lead over an excellent Ohio. The defense had forced four punts and a turnover, but there was reason to believe that Ohio could still make a charge — the Bobcats were averaging 6.2 yards per play, after all. (Plus, in general, they had a really good offense, more than capable of scoring 21 or more points in the second half.) Miami’s offensive success, meanwhile, had been driven by the pass: Gus Ragland was 16-for-22 for 185 yards and a touchdown.

Ragland threw 10 passes in the second half, almost all of them conservative — and he completed four for 14 yards. Ohio averaged 6.7 yards per play in the second half to Miami’s 4.2, the RedHawks went three-and-out five times in seven possessions (the other two: a five-and-out and a turnover), and sure enough, Ohio had cut Miami’s lead to 30-28, then got the ball back with 30 seconds left and a chance to win with a field goal.

The Bobcats came up about 20 yards short of a field goal attempt, and the RedHawks held on after doing everything wrong.

But they were still talented enough to beat a good team! And they turned around and beat eventual MAC champ NIU the next week as well. They won five of seven to finish the year bowl eligible for the second time in three seasons. Miami had been to only one bowl in nine years before his arrival, so that’s not nothing. But the same methodical approach that has led to a steady build has kept the win total tamped down. Among active coaches, he’s at the bottom of the in-game underachievers list.

So is he a bad good coach? A great terrible one?

Either way, he’s Miami’s for another year. And at first glance, this five-year streak of steady improvement is in danger. Ragland, his two leading running backs, two of his four favorite targets, and the left side of the offensive line are all gone from a unit that has still climbed only as high as 90th in Off. S&P+ under Martin. The defense returns some play-makers but must replace about half its two-deep and do-everything linebacker Brad Koenig.

Martin just signed the third-best class in the MAC, and the foundation looks as healthy as ever. But you have to wonder if the missed opportunities through the years have soured his accomplishments a bit. And you have to wonder what might happen to the relationship if or when the RedHawks actually take a step backwards at some point. We might find out this year.

Offense

If Miami could run the ball on you in 2018, you were probably screwed. Not including Ragland, who would attempt about six non-sack carries per game, the RedHawks had four primary ball carriers: Alonzo Smith, Kenny Young (also Ragland’s second-most frequent target), Maurice Thomas, and Jaylen Bester. They were just slightly more effective in wins than losses.

  • Smith, Young, Thomas, and Bester in six wins: 15.8 carries per game, 199.7 yards per game, 6.4 yards per carry, 12 TDs
  • In six losses: 8.8 carries per game, 58.8 yards per game, 3.4 yards per carry, 3 TDs

If the run worked, offensive co-coordinators George Barnett and Eric Koehler would ride it pretty far. If it didn’t, they’d ditch it quickly and ask Ragland to save them. (Ragland would then frequently dump the ball to one of the backs on the perimeter.)

Smith and Young are gone after combining for 270 intended touches (rushes and pass targets), but Thomas and Bester (124 combined) played a role as well, and Bester was maybe the most exciting to watch of the foursome. On a per-intended-touch basis, he was the second most dangerous behind Young.

NCAA Football: Miami (Ohio) at Notre Dame
Jaylon Bester
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Bester and Thomas should expect to play a pretty large role this year, as Miami doesn’t really seem to believe in the intermediate passes. Ragland’s successor — be it Michigan transfer Alex Malzone or one of many three-star youngsters (sophomore Jackson Williamson, redshirt freshmen AJ Mayer or Michael Bonds, or true freshman Brett Gabbert) — will be asked to throw basically screens, flares ... and lots of go routes.

The best go routes option might be a tight end: junior Andrew Homer should probably be asked to play a larger role after catching 16 of 23 passes for 231 yards and three scores. His vertical presence could distract safeties and prevent them from keying on a couple of targets on the outside. Jack Sorenson (742 yards, two touchdowns) is easily the most well-rounded of Miami receivers, while tight end-sized Luke Mayock (319 yards, three TDs) is a unique matchup.

Sorenson and Mayock are the only two returnees who caught more than 16 passes last year, but players like Homer, junior Dominique Robinson (another big target), sophomore Jalen Walker, and a boatload of three-star youngsters could be ready for larger roles.

The line has to replace two starters in LT Jordan Rigg and LG Sam McCollum but still features four players who have combined for 67 career starts. Two-year starting center Danny Godlevske was third-team All-MAC in 2018.

Despite some thinning out on the two-deep, there appears to be decent talent here. We just have to find out if there’s a quarterback. Malzone, a former four-star prospect, has attempted four career passes and has completed zero; he’s the most experienced guy here. There’s plenty of potential in the fact that Martin and his co-coordinators will have five former three- or four-star prospects to choose from, but someone still has to step up.

Defense

Despite the fact that he is a former offensive coordinator, Martin’s teams have been driven mostly by defenses — the RedHawks have ranked quite a bit higher in Def. S&P+ than in Off. S&P+ for each of the past four years. They were 66th this past season, a unit defined not by any one overriding strength but by a lack of outright weaknesses. They were 60th in marginal efficiency, 30th in marginal explosiveness, and between 47th and 54th in Rushing, Passing, Standard Downs and Passing Downs S&P+.

The balance here makes me feel better about their chances to deal with loss: defensive co-coordinators Spence Nowinsky and John Hauser have to replace three of their top seven linemen, two of three linebackers, and two of three safeties.

One loss does bear a lot of weight, though. Koenig was one of the best linebackers in the country at any level. He led the team in tackles (82, nearly double anyone else’s on the team), tackles for loss (13), run stuffs (18), and forced fumbles (four), and he was second in sacks (five) and third in passes defensed (five). Losing him is like losing two good players.

Cincinnati v Miami Ohio
Doug Costin (58)
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

They do still return proven talent at each level of the defense, though.

  • Nose tackle Doug Costin logged 10.5 TFLs and six sacks — not bad for a 295-pounder. He’ll be joined by veteran ends Ben Kimpler and Dean Lemon, and sophomore tackle Andrew Sharp could be ready for a larger role. So could sophomore end Kameron Butler, for that matter.
  • Linebackers Myles Reid and Ryan McWood are now the defensive anchors. Koenig was special, but Reid’s been around a while, at least. (Depth here is perilous if either of these veterans go down.)
  • The secondary is still super exciting as long as cornerback Zedrick Raymond is still on the field. He might be the best corner in the conference, and in Raymond and former four-star Virginia commit Mike Brown, Miami’s got a couple of dangerous, physical weapons in the back. And I haven’t even mentioned safety Bart Baratti yet — he was an interesting havoc weapon, recording nine TFLs and three sacks from the back row.

The offense has question marks, but I’d be surprised if the Miami defense wasn’t again one of the best in the conference.

Special Teams

In a conference weighed down by lots of bad special teams units, Miami’s was a happy standout. The Redhawks’ unit was as balanced as their defense, ranking in the top 20 in kick return efficiency and in the top 50 in place-kicking, punting, and kickoffs.

Better yet: those responsible for all of those positive ratings are scheduled to return — punter Kyle Kramer, kicker Samuel Sloman, and a pair of dangerous return men in Maurice Thomas and Jaylen Bester. This should again be the best unit in the conference.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug at Iowa 25 -19.9 13%
7-Sep Tennessee Tech NR 37.0 98%
14-Sep at Cincinnati 44 -14.5 20%
21-Sep at Ohio State 7 -31.7 3%
TBD Akron 124 17.5 84%
TBD Bowling Green 123 17.0 84%
TBD Buffalo 97 4.6 60%
TBD Northern Illinois 76 -1.8 46%
TBD at Ball State 110 5.5 62%
TBD at Kent State 111 6.3 64%
TBD at Ohio 82 -5.5 37%
TBD at Western Michigan 75 -6.9 34%
Projected S&P+ Rk 93
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 95 / 82
Projected wins 6.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -8.2 (98)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 96
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 6 / 2.9
2018 TO Luck/Game +1.3
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 57% (57%, 57%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 5.9 (0.1)

Martin’s program-building strengths have been strong enough to put his in-game weaknesses in the spotlight. Despite Miami’s obvious gains, the Redhawks are just 17-23 the last three seasons, and with just a .500 record in close games, they’d be at something closer to seven wins a year with three bowl bids.

This is probably another season that will be defined by close games. S&P+ projects three double-digit wins for the RedHawks (home games against BGSU, Akron, and Tennessee Tech), three double-digit losses (road games against Iowa, Cincinnati, and Ohio State), and six one-possession tossups. If Miami either executes better or receives better breaks, then there’s enough talent here, especially on defense, to make a conference title run.

But history suggests the RedHawks will only win one or two of those six close games. That could mean another year without a bowl.

If Martin’s been saving all of his close-game karma for a good moment, now would be the time to spend some of it. There is both a lot of opportunity, and a lot of threat, on the table.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.