MOBILE, Ala. — Not even an interim coach and a freshman quarterback could keep Miami of Ohio from the best turnaround season in college football history.
Austin Boucher threw for 289 yards and two touchdowns in his fourth career start and the RedHawks capped a historic season with a 35-21 win Thursday night over Middle Tennessee in the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
“We didn't play perfect by any means — we've played better before,” Miami interim coach Lance Guidry said. “But boy, the kids were so tough through this whole thing. They've been on a roller coaster ride.”
The RedHawks (10-4) are the first team in Football Bowl Subdivision history to win 10 games one season after losing 10. Miami finished a dismal 1-11 in 2009, but recovered to win the Mid-American Conference title and finish this season on a six-game winning streak.
MTSU (6-7) won three games in a row to become bowl eligible, but was hurt by five turnovers.
Miami's Dayonne Nunley was responsible for two of them, recovering a fumble and returning an interception 52 yards for a touchdown. Thomas Merriweather rushed for 100 yards and two touchdowns.
MTSU's Dwight Dasher threw four interceptions — all in the second half.
It was a sweet ending for the RedHawks, especially considering there was plenty of adversity along the way. Miami played its first bowl since 2004 without coach Mike Haywood, who accepted the head coaching job at Pittsburgh in December. Haywood has since been fired from Pitt after being arrested on a felony domestic violence charge. On Monday, a magistrate entered a not guilty plea for Haywood on the felony charge.
The RedHawks also lost starting quarterback Zac Dysert to a lacerated spleen in November, but Boucher kept the offense going. The redshirt freshman wasn't perfect, throwing two interceptions, but completed 22 of 35 passes, including several clutch throws to keep drives alive.
“Boucher's a competitor,” Guidry said. “He's a winner. We didn't know that until he got a chance to actually start and play. Out of high school we thought he was a really good player and a winner, but until you get live bullets, you really don't know. But he's done a great job.”
Guidry said he felt a sense of kinship with Boucher since both had to take the place of accomplished veterans.
“I kind of did the job he's been doing,” Guidry said. “He took over for Dysert, filling in and rising to the occasion. And I had to do it on the coaching side.”
Nick Harwell caught seven passes for 86 yards and a touchdown. Miami outgained MTSU, 416-370.
“We kicked ourselves in the rear a couple times, but every time the offense made a mistake the defense came up huge for us,” Boucher said. “You can't ask for anything more than that.”
MTSU's Dasher was stellar in the first half, accounting for 158 total yards, including a 49-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter that gave the Blue Raiders a short-lived 14-7 lead.
But the senior struggled in the second half, throwing four interceptions. He finished with 162 passing yards, 90 rushing yards and a touchdown while Phillip Tanner rushed for 87 yards and two touchdowns.
“We've been good since I've been here protecting the ball,” MTSU coach Rick Stockstill said. “But we weren't this season.”
Miami took the lead for good late in the third quarter, when Boucher hit Chris Givens for a 17-yard touchdown pass, pushing the score to 28-21. The RedHawks put the game out of reach in the fourth quarter with Boucher's 5-yard touchdown pass to Harwell.
“We made the plays that were there to be made, and that was enough,” Boucher said.