2023 Cure Bowl Preview: Miami Underdogs against App. State
By: Jack Mueller
The Miami RedHawks will take on the Mountaineers of Appalachian State on Saturday afternoon in Orlando for the chance to take home the Cure Bowl Title.
Despite a twelve day hiatus from competition, the RedHawks will enter the game with loads of momentum. Miami is riding a four game win streak, including of course their last victory against Toledo at Ford Field which saw them crowned as MAC Champions.
Miami enters the game as heavy underdogs (+6.5) against App. State, who put together a solid season, finishing with an 8-5 record (6-2 in the Sun Belt Conference). The Mountaineers made noise in several games in 2023, taking the UNC Tar Heels to double overtime in early September, and handing James Madison their lone loss of the season.
Both teams will arrive in Orlando slightly short-handed, as the opening of the NCAA transfer portal has impacted both rosters. For Miami, their lead signal-caller for the latter portion of the season, Aveon Smith, announced that he would enter the portal following their MAC title game victory. The RedHawks will have to rely on third string quarterback Henry Hesson to lead the offense on saturday. Outside of Smith though, Miami has been able to keep the majority of their core together, with nine key players announcing their return for the 2024 season including but not limited to:
- Brett Gabbert (QB1 in ‘24 // 14 TD’s 1600 yards before injury ended season)
- Gage Larvadain (Leading WR in yards - 643, TDs - 6)
- Matt Salopek (MAC Defensive MVP in ‘23, 134 total tackles)
- Graham Nicholson (Lou Groza Award winner, MAC Special Teams MVP)
The Mountaineers offense also took a heavy blow through the portal, as their leading rusher Nate Noel announced his intention to transfer on December 7th. Noel racked up 851 yards and five touchdowns over the course of the season, and will look to leverage those numbers to land with a Power-5 program. App. State has ten total players in the portal, including two of their backup wide receivers (Milan Tucker, Dashaun Davis)
Saturday’s game is set up to be a game of opposites, as the two teams are set up for success very differently. The Mountaineers have relied on an explosive offense to blow teams away, and when they can get their offensive unit moving, they have been able to blow teams out (55-27 vs. GA Southern, 42-14 vs. GA State, 43-28 vs. East Carolina). However, when their opponents have been able to keep that offense in check, like Old Dominion and Wyoming were able to in their victories, then the Mountaineers are beatable.
Miami’s defense has been outstanding all season, so the matchup between the RedHawks unit against the Mountaineers prolific offense will be must-see TV. However, the RedHawks offense has proven to be less than dominant in previous weeks, relying on some huge defensive and special teams plays to bring home victories against Ball State and Toledo. With a brand new quarterback under center, the defense, led by Salopek and fellow returner Ty Wise, will need to be on top of their games in order to keep Miami in the game.
Players to Watch
Yahsyn McKee (Sr. DB)
The old adage goes “Big time players make big time plays”, and McKee is no exception. The two biggest wins of the season have McKee’s fingerprints on them, as the senior corner registered a late interception in the wins against Cincinnati and Toledo. App. State’s offense is reliant on their passing attack, led by star QB Joey Aguilar, and alongside Michael Dowell and Raion Strader, the responsibility falls on him to neutralize the pass.
Henry Hesson (R-So. QB)
There’s very little information out there about Miami’s starting quarterback. Hesson has only appeared in three games for the RedHawks so far, registering just five pass attempts for 37 yards. A three year varsity starter for Avon High School (Indianapolis), Hesson registered 31 touchdowns and over 2,500 passing yards as a senior. Miami will likely rely on their rushing attack to make their new quarterback comfortable, so don’t forget to watch Rashad Amos as well, but it’s always a story when a new passer makes his debut in the postseason. The redshirt sophomore will need to put together the performance of a lifetime against a tough App. State defense that has allowed 212 yards in the air to opponents per game.
Gage Larvadain/Rashad Amos
If Miami’s offense performs at a high level on Saturday, it will likely have something to do with these two men. Miami’s top receiver and top rusher have the task of making the game as easy as possible for the RedHawks new signal caller. Larvadain has been a star for Miami this season, leading the team in both receiving yards and touchdowns despite missing the last two games of the regular season against Buffalo and Ball State. App. State has been good, but not great defending the pass this season, and if Miami wants to get any sort of pass game going, Larvadain will be the ignition key. Amos is the feature back for a Miami rushing attack which, in the absence of Brett Gabbert and Aveon Smith, will need to find another gear on Saturday. Amos has registered 931 yards and 12 touchdowns to date, but will be tasked with adding more of each to establish Miami’s ground attack.
App. State Mountaineers
Joey Aguilar (Jr. QB)
The Mountaineers success in 2023 has been primarily as a result of their man under center. Aguilar has been nothing short of spectacular this season, Aguilar’s 33 touchdowns ranks fourth in the nation, behind the three best quarterbacks in college football this season, Bo NIx, Michael Penix, and the Heisman winner Jayden Daniels. Aguilar’s quarterback rating of 73.2 according to ESPN, which ranks as #24 in the country, ahead of some notable names such as Riley Leonard and Taulia Tagovailoa. Miami’s pass defense was far from perfect against Toledo, and with Aguilar leading the way, App. State will hope to take advantage.
Tyrek Funderburk (Sr. DB)
App. State’s senior corner has my vote for the list of college football's best names, and his play on the field is just as good. Funderburk has racked up four interceptions and eight pass breakups so far this season, and will likely be responsible for keeping Larvadain in front of him come saturday. The 6’0 has the height advantage over Miami’s top pass catcher, which will likely prevent Larvadain from being the deep threat he was earlier in the season. If Miami attempts to get their pass game going with their new QB, Funderburk will be called into action to minimize the damage.
Nate Johnson (Fr. EDGE)
Any time a team calls on a new quarterback, the primary objective of their opponents will be to make the debutant as uncomfortable as possible, enter Nate Johnson. The freshman linebacker will no doubt be in the RedHawk backfield early and often in Orlando. Up to this point, Johnson has registered 8.5 tackles for loss, including 7.5 sacks for a Mountaineer defense that has needed some big plays. Chuck Martin will have to prepare his new look offense for the threat that Johnson brings off of the edge.
2023 Cure Bowl: Miami RedHawks vs Appalachian State Mountaineers
Date: Saturday, December 16th
Time: 3:30 p.m E.T
Place: FBC Mortgage Stadium, Orlando, FL
Live Updates on Twitter: @jack_mueller15