With kickoff to Northwestern’s season opener in Dublin, Ireland under 25 days away, it’s time to begin examining the Wildcats’ opponents during their 2022 season via the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll be breaking down the teams that NU will face each week, discussing their 2021 campaigns, season outlooks and more.
Today’s edition features the Miami RedHawks, a team which is looking to retain its place at the top of the MAC pyramid and has offensive firepower that could cause Jim O’Neil’s defense problems.
Returning Production: 62% overall (offense 76%, defense 47%)
2021 Record: 7-6 (5-3 MAC)
Head coach: Chuck Martin
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly and Football Outsiders (and now ESPN!). You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2021 SP+ Overall: 73rd
2021 SP+ Offense: 64th
2021 SP+ Defense: 67th
After a couple of rough seasons when he first was hired from Notre Dame where he served as the offensive coordinator, head coach Chuck Martin had began to turn things around considerably in Oxford. Entering his eighth season last year, the RedHawks looked to be the favorites in the MAC East. With 2020’s shortened season, Miami could reach back-to-back conference championships for the first time since 2003 and 2004 if it could live up to expectations.
In hindsight, the RedHawks had a challenging non-conference schedule. They were pummeled 49-14 by Cincinnati and followed that up with a narrow 31-26 loss in Minneapolis against P.J. Fleck and the Golden Gophers. Then, after a 42-7 win against FCS Long Island University, Miami traveled to West Point, where the Black Knights stifled its offense in a 23-10 defeat, sending the RedHawks into conference play with a 1-3 record.
However, as is with most non-Power 5 schools, the level of competition faced in non-conference play is often higher than what they face in conference play. Despite some tough results to start the year, Miami’s ultimate goal remained in sight. The RedHawks won three of the four games they played in October, with the only loss a 13-12 struggle at Eastern Michigan — the only game Miami failed to score a touchdown.
Miami’s offense really started to hit its stride in November, scoring 30 or more points in its remaining four conference games. After a 2-1 start to the month which put the RedHawks at 6-5 overall and 5-2 in the MAC, they faced Kent State, who was also 5-2 in conference play, in a game that would decide the division. While the offense put up a season-high 47 points, the usually stingy defense gave up 48, meaning Miami would miss out on a trip to Ford Field to fight for the conference title.
The RedHawks’ season was not done yet, as they were bowl eligible despite the non-conference gauntlet they faced. Miami was selected to face North Texas in the Frisco Football Classic and capped off a strong year with a 27-14 victory. For the third year, and second full season, in a row, Martin’s team finished with a winning record.
Although the RedHawks were pretty balanced in terms of offense and defense last year, after graduations and transfers took their toll on the roster, it’s clear the offense will be the strength of this team. Led by coordinator Eric Koehler, who took the post the same time Martin was hired, Miami ranked 45th in yards per game and 63rd in points per game in the nation last year.
The RedHawks leaned on their passing game to move the ball, and with junior quarterback Brett Gabbert lined up to start, they will likely continue to do so. Jack Sorenson, who had a team-high 1400 receiving yards in 2021, graduated, but senior Mac Hippenhammer is primed to replace that production. WR3 and kick returner Jalen Walker is back as well, and Miami also added 6-foot-4 junior Miles Marshall, who had 300 yards at Indiana last season, through the transfer portal.
While they didn’t have a single running back break the 600-yard mark in 2021, the RedHawks return their top four leading rushers from a year ago. The running back by committee approach will also be bolstered by four of the five starting offensive linemen last season returning. It’s an experienced group and a productive one as well.
Typically “turnover” is a positive word for a defense, but after the offseason he’s had, defensive coordinator Bill Brechin would beg to differ. All four of his defensive ends on the two-deep have either transferred or graduated, leading tackler Ivan Pace Jr. transferred to Cincinnati and both starting safeties along with two cornerbacks have left the program. In other words, Brechin is starting from scratch, meaning it’ll be extremely tough for the group to reach the standards last year’s set by being top 40 in the nation in points and yards allowed per game.
The one spot on this side of the ball that does have experience is defensive tackle. Junior Austin Ertl and redshirt sophomore Anthony Collier started next to each other in the interior of the defensive line last year. Outside of them, it’s a different story, and the entire team will be counting on someone to step up and replace the 25 sacks from the defensive end position.
At linebacker, Ivan Pace Jr. is gone, but redshirt sophomore Matthew Salopek, who is listed on the roster as a defensive back, lined up opposite Pace in Brechin’s 4-2-5 a season ago. With a year of experience under his belt, he’ll have to take on a bigger role in 2022 and has proven he has the ability to do so.
The secondary does see sophomore corner John Saunders Jr., who led the unit in interceptions in 2021, come back, along with sophomore Jacquez Warren, who was the starting nickel back last year. Warren could move outside this season, leaving his former role open, as well as the two safety spots. This will be an extremely young and inexperienced group, and as a result, one that can be exploited.
Three Players to Know
QB Brett Gabbert
The younger brother of Blaine Gabbert, a former first-round pick who struggled to catch on with a number of franchises around the NFL, Brett is by far and away the RedHawks most important player. He started in Koehler’s offense as a true freshman in 2019 and won MAC Freshman of the Year. While AJ Mayer did get chances at the position last season, Gabbert ultimately kept his job, throwing for over 2600 yards with 26 touchdowns and only six interceptions, and Mayer has now transferred away from Oxford.
WR Mac Hippenhammer
If Gabbert is going to perform as well as he did last year, Hippenhammer will be a crucial part of that success. After transferring from Penn State in 2020, the redshirt senior had nearly 800 yards on 48 catches for five touchdowns in his first full year as a RedHawk a year ago. Those numbers should only improve, as he will be the primary option out wide with last year’s leading pass-catcher, Jack Sorenson, gone.
LB/DB Matthew Salopek
While the capacity of Salopek’s role in the RedHawk defense is still undefined, his production last year is still definitive. As a redshirt sophomore, the Ohio-native put up 112 tackles, seven of which were for a loss, and broke up six passes. Given the lack of experience around him, he might become one of the leaders on this defense, and his play will be essential to keeping opponents out of the RedHawk endzone.