Homecoming holds extra meaning this year for a RedHawk football team returning to Oxford after playing six of seven games on the road. The Miami University gridders now enter the final stretch of their season featuring four of five contests inside the friendly confines of Yager Stadium.
“We’ve got Northern Illinois and that’s our homecoming game,” linebacker Jerrell Wedge said. “We’re really amped up to try to get our first win.”
At 0-7 the RedHawks are battered and bruised, another phrase that holds both figurative and literal interpretations for Miami. Team confidence continues to run low, as noted by head coach Mike Haywood, and team’s injury list continues to grow with every passing game.
Wide receiver Eugene Harris III reinjured his hamstring against Ohio University. His status remains uncertain for Saturday as he joins wide out Dustin Woods and running back Andre Bratton on the list of ailing ’Hawks at the skill positions. This is all in addition to the season-ending surgery suffered by Chris Givens and doesn’t even mention the many injuries riddled all throughout the rest of the roster.
Amidst the depleted wide receiver corps, junior Armand Robinson has risen as the most reliable target down field. He leads the team with 39 catches 442 yards. Andrew Curse has been thrown into the proverbial fire, being expected to produce right away as a freshman.
“It’s an opportunity for another young man to have success,” Haywood said of the many injuries to his wide receivers. “Cruse is getting better, but he’s going to have to step it up. He’s being counted on more now than he has since he left high school and he’s going to have to answer the call.”
In past weeks the RedHawk practices focused on eliminating turnovers. This week Haywood looks to tackle a new problem: physicality. When the first-year head coach arrived in Oxford he promised the implementation of smash-mouth football. So far, however, the only mouths being smashed are their own, as noted by a futile run game and the goose egg in the win column.
“We’re not a physical ballclub and that’s just disappointing,” Haywood said. “We have to become more physical to run the football. Our running backs are running with their legs and not running with their eyes. There are seams inside that they’re supposed to hit and they misread the play.”
The running backs are not the only players on the team responsible for the grounded rushing attack. Physicality is lacking up front on the offensive line as well.
“The thing we don’t like to do as an offensive line is to run block,” Haywood said. “That’s a mind-set that ‘We’re going to come off and hit you in the mouth, and we’re going to hit you in the mouth for 60 minutes.’ It’s not in their makeup.”
To address this problem that Haywood views as team wide, the coach redesigned practices this week. Offense versus defense drills will be nine players against seven. The team scrimmaged on Tuesday and wore pads on Thursday. Haywood wants opponents driven back instead of falling forward. He is also bringing back the old Oklahoma drill in which three offensive lineman and a running back go head to head with three defensive linemen – missing a block will be hard to hide.
“Guys are going to learn that they’re going to have to play the game physical, or that they’re in the wrong organization,” Haywood said.
Regardless of what happened in practice, Northern Illinois won’t easily be pushed around Saturday. At 3-3 the Huskies boast quality victories over Western Michigan University, Purdue University and Western Illinois University. NIU lost by just one point to the University of Toledo and gave Big Ten opponent University of Wisconsin more than it bargained for in a close 28-20 season opening defeat.
Northern Illinois averages 358 yards per game, the bulk of which is produced by a husky ground game. Running backs Me’co Brown and Chad Spann compose a two-headed attack from the backfield, averaging 93 and 52 yards per game respectively. Of NIU’s 22 touchdowns, Spann has scored 10.
The Huskies are dangerous through the air as well. Eight different receivers average more than 10 yards per catch. Quarterback Chandler Harnish has completed 64.3 percent of his passes for 967 yards and six TDs.
Win or lose, Haywood wants to see his team play hard, smash-mouth football for all 60 minutes.
“You want your team to be known as a disciplined, physical football team that will be in the game until the end because of their physicality and execution,” Haywood said.
Kickoff comes at 1 p.m. Saturday afternoon in Yager Stadium. Fans are encouraged to celebrate homecoming by wearing red to the game.