Three yards separated the RedHawks from contention. The No. 10 nationally ranked Bearcats, who once owned a 20-0 lead, were on the ropes.
Down by three scores, Miami University used two pass-powered drives to vault within 10 points of its 114-year archrival. Then, with momentum surging in his team’s favor, head coach Mike Haywood caught everyone by surprise.
No one saw the onside kick coming. The record crowd didn’t expect it. Brian Kelly, the pride and coach of Cincinnati didn’t expect it. The UC special teams unit, who initially turned its back on the bouncing ball, certainly didn’t expect it.
Blindsided, the Bearcats gave the ball back to Miami. Moments later, the RedHawks stood on the doorstep of resurgence.
“In a rivalry game you’re going to get someone’s best shot,” Kelly said. “We got Miami’s best today.”
From the three-yard line in enemy territory, redshirt freshman Zac Dysert dropped back to pass. Just after locating an open receiver and beginning his throwing motion, however, Miami’s opportunity slipped away. Dysert lost his footing and vastly under threw his target. Instead he hit JK Schaffer of the Cincinnati Bearcats.
“When he threw the pick,” Haywood said, “the first thing I did was run up to him and say ‘just relax. It’s not life or death right now. We can comeback and still have an opportunity to win this game.’”
Despite Haywood’s reassurance, Miami chance had been thrown away. Cincinnati allowed the ’Hawks back into its territory only one more time for the rest of the game. Meanwhile, the Bearcat offense scored two more touchdowns of its own. The game ended in a lopsided 37-13 decision, one that both coached admitted did not adequately represent the efforts on the field.
“Today was not our A game,” Kelly, who was not pleased with the performance of his star quarterback or his team’s execution of numerous plays, said. “We still won by 24 and it wasn’t (Tony Pike’s) best. I’ll take that.”
Haywood, on the other hand, believes this game illustrates the significant progress his team has already made in just five games. Nevertheless, he refuses to celebrate a loss.
“The guys are playing hard, competing and getting better but not playing well enough to play winning football at this point in time,” Haywood said. “I think we are making progress but I don’t think there are any moral victories.”
Dysert finished the game with 286 yards and a touchdown on 33 completions. His two interceptions inside the UC 30-yard line proved costly, however, and left an ugly mark on an otherwise beautiful performance. After ripping off 107 rushing yards against Kent State University in his first career start, the redshirt freshman was sacked 10 times to finish with negative yards on the ground.
“We sometimes forget that this is only his second start of his collegiate career,” Haywood said. “He has a long ways to go but I think he’s progressing on the right path.
Pike, who vaulted himself into Heisman Trophy conversations with his impressive start to the season, did not look like the nation’s top player against the RedHawks. He completed just over 50 percent of his passes and s held under 300 yards.
“He didn’t make a couple of throws that he normally makes,” Kelly said. “I think he’s human.”
On the ground, Miami struggled. The Bearcats held the RedHawks to just 30 rushing yards on 35 carries. This team has battled a stagnant ground game all season; excluding quarterback scrambles, the ’Hawks total only 290 rushing yards through five games in 2009.
To combat the rushing ineptness, Haywood often used swing passes to the running back out of the backfield. Starter Andre Bratton caught 11 passes for 90 yards and a touchdown, all three of which are career highs for the senior.
“Just being out there with my team battling for the bell is a great feeling,” Bratton said. “I had to do it one last time in my senior year and just give it my all.”
Saturday’s attendance reached 23,493 fans, a record crowd for Yager Stadium since its remodeling and lowered capacity in 2004 and Miami’s largest home crowd since 2003. After playing four games away from Oxford to start the season, Miami now heads back on the road for two more away games. Up next is a noon meeting with Big Ten opponent Northwestern University. Haywood doesn’t want his team to hope for a win. Instead, he wants them to believe in one.
“Some people hope. When you hope to win that’s only a50-50 chance,” Haywood said. “You have to believe to win. We talk about having faith, trust, belief and commitment to yourself and to this organization.”