IOWA CITY, Iowa — Eight games into his second campaign at Miami (Ohio), coach Chuck Martin looked at his offense and wasn’t sure how to fix it.
Outside of an opening-day victory against FCS Presbyterian, the RedHawks scored more than 14 points just once entering late October. Only one time did Miami reach 400 total yards. Martin’s young offense appeared broken and and the players demoralized.
“Early in the year to midyear, it was almost nonfunctioning on offense at times a year ago,” Martin said in his weekly news conference before facing Iowa on Saturday. “The offense didn’t give us a chance to compete to win games.”
The RedHawks showed a little life late in the season with two victories in their final three games to finish 3-9. But overall the numbers and production were far from Martin’s aspirations.
Miami finished with seven rushing touchdowns, fourth-lowest nationally. The passing offense wasn’t much better, with quarterbacks throwing 19 interceptions and only 18 touchdowns. The RedHawks converted just 31.18 percent on third down and finished with a minus-14 turnover margin.
“We didn’t give our team much opportunity for success, whether it was a bunch of three-and-outs or a bunch of turnovers,” Martin said. “So that will obviously be the first and biggest challenge against Iowa. Iowa is a big, physical, strong defense to move the ball on. Can we do enough, can we carve out enough on offense to move the ball and help our defense protect the game from an overall management standpoint?”
Martin, who helped guide Division II Grand Valley (Mich.) State to four national titles, including two as head coach, stuck with a youth movement that struggled throughout last season but has led to returning starters at nine positions. Only three offensive starters are seniors, which contributed to the lumps in 2015 but could help build toward future success.
Sophomore quarterback Billy Bahl was erratic in most games last year. Bahl started seven games as a true freshman and completed 44.5 percent of his passes for 1,409 yards, eight touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Only in three games did Bahl complete half of his passes, and his confidence lagged at times.
“He’s come a long way,” Martin said. “He’s a couple of weeks into his second year on a college campus. His potential is huge, as we know. He’s throwing the ball way more accurately. A lot of that has to do with he knows where he’s throwing it.”
Miami returns its top six rushers and top eight receivers. The defense has its core returning with six starters.
But playing at Iowa likely won’t provide Miami with a chance to develop chemistry on either side. The Hawkeyes, who earned the Big Ten West Division title, won 12 games last year and advanced to their first Rose Bowl in 25 years. Iowa ranked in the nation’s top 20 in 10 different categories, including interceptions (10th with 19), rushing defense (15th, 121.43 yards per game) and turnover margin (plus-11).
Iowa returns the bulk of its offense and defense. Coach Kirk Ferentz respects Martin’s Division II success and what he helped incorporate at Notre Dame from 2009-2013.
“We’re treating this like any other game,” Ferentz said. “It’s an opening game. That’s big. I don’t care who our opponent is. We’ve got to be ready to go.”
Martin, whose team is a 27.5-point underdog, doesn’t want to make the game simply about pride. But Martin is not about to put the season on the line with a season-opening trip to a Big Ten power. He wants to see how his players respond to a nearly full stadium and battle nerves and adversity.
“The long-term success of Iowa and how physical they are, we’re trying to become a physical team in our own right,” Martin said. “I don’t know that we’re as physical as Iowa by a long stretch. But it’s a good barometer for us as we put our hands on their guys to feel what physical football is at the highest level because obviously they’re one of the more physical teams in the country.
“You’re going into a hostile environment against great players and you’re up against it and how are you going to respond? Are you going to come out swinging and fighting? We expect that.”
Also, 87-year-old Kinnick Stadium itself provides some excitement for Martin and his players.
“I’ve never been to Iowa,” Martin said. “I’ve heard tons of stories. I’m looking forward to it. But for our kids to play at a Big Ten venue in front of a lot of people, the pink locker room, I can’t wait to see it. Since I was a little kid I knew about the pink locker room. I can’t wait to go be a part of that history. If you’re into college football, which I’d been into college football my whole life, to me it’s going to be cool.”