Detroit — Kicks.
Miami (Ohio) returned them, recovered them and booted them in timely fashion on Saturday, keying a 26-21 win over Central Michigan in the MAC Championship at Ford Field.
And when it was over, two questions lingered for the Chippewas, as an incredible turnaround season should finish soon at a bowl game.
Where will that bowl game be? And, who will coach Central Michigan that day?
First-year coach Jim McElwain engineered a MAC West championship season for a program one year removed from 1-11. McElwain could have earned Power Five job offers too, but said he expects to coach CMU in its bowl game and beyond.
“Absolutely, can’t wait,” McElwain said. “We’re going to find out (Sunday), we’ve got a team meeting at what time?”
Players Michael Oliver and Kalil Pimpleton, seated next to McElwain at the postgame news conference, answered.
“4:30. We figure we should know by then,” McElwain said. “I told them before the game, I was just hoping they remembered.”
The players remembered, noting that the coach has been listened to all season.
“He came in, and honestly just instilled discipline to us,” Oliver said. “Told us how we’re going to get it done, just got to lock in and be focused. He instilled that from day one, do your job.”
It was the RedHawks who did their job better Saturday on special teams.
Miami (8-5) ran the opening kickoff back 97 yards to set up a touchdown, recovered a late CMU onside kick and snuffed out a fake punt, while Sam Sloman banged out four field goals to key the win.
Sloman’s blasts of 41, 33, 48 and 42 yards were the difference. The senior is 25-of-29 on kicks this season.
The Miami defense also held CMU scoreless for most of the second half until backup quarterback Tommy Lazzaro’s second rushing score of the game with 1:24 remaining.
Central Michigan (8-5) recovered the ensuing onside kick but were flagged for going offsides. The second attempt was unsuccessful.
“I thought they had a great plan,” McElwain said. "Their line movement, how they play it, has been something that’s given us troubles all year. I thought up front they did a really good job handling what we were trying to do as far as their front.
“They had a good plan. They just beat us. It is what it is.”
Miami freshman quarterback Brett Gabbert, younger brother of NFL quarterback Blaine, responded to a rough start with a strong second half. He finished 14-for-27 passing with 196 yards and a touchdown.
Gabbert hit wide receiver Jack Sorenson for eight competitions, 123 yards and a score, giving former Grand Valley State coach Chuck Martin his first MAC title.
Quinten Dormady was 26-for-41 passing for 232 yards and his 11-yard touchdown to Tyrone Scott gave CMU a 14-10 lead after halftime.
The RedHawks would score the next 13 points though, as CMU’s offense struggled in the second half, converting 2 of 7 third downs.
Wide receiver Kalil Pimpleton, who combined with former Muskegon High School teammate JaCorey Sullivan for 13 catches and 116 yards, was able to reflect positively on the season after the loss.
“It’s tough that we couldn’t get the big prize, but we’ll be back,” Pimpleton, a sophomore, said.
Oliver added: “I’m very, very extremely proud of our guys in that locker room. No matter the result, I love them to death. We fought, and we have been fighting like this every game, all season.
“So I’m proud. I’m a proud Chip right now, for how we played, how my guys came out here and competed really.”
Unlike Brian Kelly and Butch Jones before him, McElwain couldn’t close the deal for the Chippewas in the title game, the program’s first MAC Championship loss in its fourth trip.
Those previous coaches both left for greener pastures, both taking over at Cincinnati and climbing higher up the coaching ladder from there.
McElwain already had his big-time job, guiding Florida for two-and-a-half seasons, but could be fielding offers soon from Missouri and others.
But first, it was time to reflect on what’s already been accomplished in Mount Pleasant, a run McElwain kick-started but was undone by kicks in what might be the end.
“I know one thing, as I told the guys in the locker room, I’ve probably have never been more proud of a group that I’ve been associated with in my coaching career,” McElwain said. “What they have set themselves up to do, and what they did, (nothing) short of amazing.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.