21st-ranked Tigers take aim at RedHawks in season opener

The Miami-Ohio RedHawks might have claimed the American Conference championship in 2010, but the team did suffer a couple of losses along the way. One of those setbacks came against the Missouri Tigers, who are first on the docket for the RedHawks in 2011. The Tigers begin the season ranked 21st in the nation following a 2010 season in which the team won 10 games.

Last year's meeting between the two schools was the first-ever showdown on a football field. It wasn't much of a battle though, as the Tigers clobbered the RedHawks, 51-13.

The RedHawks climbed the mountain of the MAC, but they certainly were not the favorite to do so in 2010. Coming off a 10-win campaign which also includes the team's first bowl victory since 2003, coach Treadwell's team will not be taken softly this year, and will have to play with a target on their backs. This is definitely a tough season opener, but the RedHawks can prove last year's success was not a fluke with a strong showing Saturday.

Claiming 10 wins in any one season is a success for a football team, but Missouri's 10-win campaign last year could have been much more special if not for a couple of big losses. Missouri defeated eventual Big 12 champion Oklahoma during the season, but a 31-17 loss to Nebraska was the tie-breaker for the North Division title. Missouri never got a chance to take on the Sooners again, but the team did make an appearance in the Insight Bowl. That contest did not work out for The Tigers, who lost to Iowa by three points. The season marked the third double-digit win total in the last four years for coach Gary Pinkel's squad.

Zac Dysert opened the 2010 campaign as the quarterback for Miami-Ohio, but an injury knocked him out down the stretch. Austin Boucher stepped in and led the RedHawks to a MAC title and a bowl victory. The performance by both players led coach Treadwell to open a competition for the starting gig in 2011.

The winner was Dysert, but offensive coordinator John Klacik felt the battle was close and regardless both players should be prepared for the upcoming season.

"We've decided that Zac Dysert is going to be our starter at quarterback," said Klacik. "Zac's really having a good camp, but so is Austin Boucher. We're ready to go with both of them."

The quarterback position was not the only question mark for coach Treadwell, as the RedHawks also lacked depth in the backfield heading into 2011. Just like the quarterback position though, the new head man left it up to the players' performances at practice to determine the starter.

While there might not be a single star in the backfield for Miami-Ohio coach Klacik feels the team is fortunate to have four capable runners.

"Erik Finklea has done a good job. He's continued to grow,' said Klacik. "Justin Semmes has done well in moving over from being a fullback to being a one back. Orne Bey and Spencer Treadwell also are doing a great job. We're going to have to have a tailback by committee and, right now, they're all pushing each other to get better."

In one season the defensive unit for Miami went from being a liability to a strength. After surrendering over 34.0 ppg through the one-win campaign of 2009, the RedHawks limited the opposition to only 23.2 ppg a year ago.

Clearly the nine-win difference between the two seasons has plenty to do with this unit, and with experience, this should be another strong season for Miami's defense.

The front line made the biggest improvement after allowing over 180 yards rushing per matchup in 2009, Miami held teams to just 128 ypg rushing last year. Look for similar success in this area with the return of many quality players, especially Austin Brown, who is a big run stuffer.

The strength of this unit will be in the linebacking corps which returns two key performers in Evan Harris and Jerrell Wedge. Wedge led the team with 101 tackles and 11.5 TFLs, while Harris added 94 stops, to go along with a team- best six interceptions.

The biggest question surrounding the Tigers as the 2011 campaign approaches is how will the Tigers perform now that Blaine Gabbert is playing in the NFL. The burden of replacing one of the best quarterbacks in school history will land solely on the shoulders of sophomore James Franklin.

Franklin didn't see much time last year, in fact he threw just 14 passes, but coach Pinkel feels that any time on the field should help his young quarterback's progress, regardless of how small of an amount.

"I think any reps you get the previous year are positive. The more you get, the more experiences you have," said Pinkel. "It's all about getting on the field, playing at a high level in front of 70,000 fans. I think he got a real good taste of that a year ago. That being said, I think he is just focused on right now and trying to play his best game. I think he had a great camp. He really improved from the beginning to the end, and that's what we expect him to do. He's a very talented young man."

Franklin will benefit from having the top three receivers from a year ago back in the fold, but at the moment one of the three targets, Jerrell Jackson, is doubtful for the opener with an injury. However, there is still T.J. Moe, who led the team in receptions (92), yards (1,045) and touchdowns (six).

The transitional phase will also be helped by the ground attack, which does not possess one main back, but instead a trio of capable runners. De'Vion Moore, who rushed for 517 yards last year, will start on Saturday, but look for Kendial Lawrence and Henry Josey to see plenty of action.

Most people focused on Gabbert and the Tigers' play offensively in 2010, but the real success for coach Pinkel was the defense, which stymied the opposition, allowing just 16.1 ppg.

The strength of this unit last year was the front line, and that looks to be the case once again in 2011. There are a couple of starters back in the fold, but more importantly there is a slew of players that earned experience last year.

One of those players was Brad Madison, who was a Second Team selection for the All-Big 12 squad. Madison racked up 7.5 sacks as a sophomore and should be a force in the conference once again.

Dominique Hamilton was also key and should be a solid run stuffer this year. The senior feels like defending the run is the most important thing for this unit.

"You always have to stop the run," said Hamilton. "That's the first thing we look for, and that's the first thing we have to do. So I feel like, if we do that first, we're going to be good."

The weakest link to this defense comes in the backfield, as the team has just one returning starter and the other options are mostly underclassmen like sophomores Andrew Wilson and E.J. Gaines. If this part of the defense does not gel quickly it could be a liability when the Big 12 action gets underway.