I'm not going to lie, when I wrote my preview of the CMU versus New Hampshire game on Friday, I thought the Chippewas were going to lose, that was the reason I didn't end that preview with a prediction. But CMU was able to rally behind a great second half, and great play from an unexpected source. I was unable to watch the game live, but thanks to the miracle of ESPN3, I was able to sit down today and watch the entire game. Here are five things I took away from the broadcast.
1. New Hampshire is good.
I noted this in the game preview, but UNH might be the most consistent program in the FCS division. Nine straight playoff appearances, and ranked every week dating back to 2004. In the first half they were extremely efficient, running the ball at will, and running a hurry-up offense that had CMU confused for long stretches of time. If you had put these two teams in neutral uniforms and watched the first half, you would have no idea which school was the FCS one, and which school was coming off a bowl victory the previous year. Without exaggerating, if New Hampshire was in the MAC, I can think of at least three teams that they would probably beat, and finish the season with a better record than. But CMU finally figured them out, and limited them in the second half to just eight points, and forced two turnovers. But...
2. Central still has plenty of problems on defense.
One big plus to this season so far, is that the Chippewas are creating turnovers. They forced three against Michigan, and two more against New Hampshire, but outside of that, problems are still evident. Truthfully, CMU was kind of unlucky on defense against New Hampshire, forcing four fumbles, but only recovering one.
The biggest issue from this game is the run defense, on paper the stats don't look that bad, 43 rushing attempts, 158 yards, for 3.7 a carry from the Wildcats. But throw out the three sacks, and it was 40 carries, for 172 yards, over four yards a carry. Especially in the first half, it seemed like CMU was constantly giving up between four and eight yards on first down, which really put their defense in a tough spot. The problem rests on the shoulders of the defensive line, who failed to close the gaps on runs up the middle. The run tackling was pretty decent, but the problem was the running back was already four yards down field by the time first contact was made. And really, the pass defense was decent outside of a couple breakdowns, and poor tackles. The three sacks are nice, but CMU needs more from the front four. It seemed like the Chippewas defense was only able to get pressure on the Wildcat quarterbacks when they sent five or more pass rushers.
I thought this would be a good barometer of what to expect when MAC play starts, and if that's the case, CMU needs to get better against the run, and mobile quarterbacks, if not, they could be in for long days when NIU and Toledo come to town.
3. CMU needs Cooper Rush to stay upright.
Despite not starting, or playing in the first quarter at all, Cooper Rush was impressive in his college debut, going 19-32 for 326 yards, three touchdowns, and no turnovers. He looked a little starstruck early, but settled down and made some great deep ball throws, particularly to Titus Davis, and completely changed the fortunes for the entire CMU team. When he got into a rhythm it opened up more running lanes for Saylor Lavalli, and lead to a much better, more balanced attack in the second half.
I don't know what Dan Enos saw in the preseason, but Alex Niznak looked lost out there both last week, and this week. He finished the day just 2-5 for seven yards and an interception. UNH dared to try and make Niznak beat them in the passing game in the first half, and he couldn't do it. As a result, UNH crowded the box, and shut down the running game early because there was no threat of a passing game. Any time Niznak dropped back to pass and there was the slightest bit of pressure on him, he looked rattled, and rushed his decision making.
Enos has already named Rush the starter for Saturday's game at UNLV, and with good reason. When CMU was at their best last year, it was when they had a balanced running and passing game, and Rush gives them the best chance because of his passing ability. Yes, at times he looked like a freshman out there, but for the most part he looked composed, and relaxed, a stark contrast from Niznak. CMU is going to need Rush to stay healthy, because any time that might be required to lean on Niznak is going to end badly.
4. Props to the CMU home crowd on Saturday.
There was any number of reasons for people not to show up on Saturday, the blowout to Michigan, an FCS team coming to town, Michigan and Michigan state both having home games, and maybe the biggest, buckets of rain that could come down at any moment. But for CMU to get over 18,000 fans with all of that against them, shows that there is nice support for this team. And even though CMU struggled in the first half, and the rain was pouring in the second quarter, the crowd stuck it out, and was very loud for the CMU defense in the second half. With the next two home games against Toledo and NIU, that kind of support could make a difference in those tough games.
5. ESPN3 needs to step it's game up.
Let me just say before I get into the problems, that I think ESPN3 is awesome. That they have almost every small team's game on there is great for fans looking for a high quality way to watch their school that wouldn't otherwise be on TV.
The biggest issue I had with the broadcast was that the camera work was just awful. I know that for CMU versus New Hampshire you're not getting the "A" crew, or even that many cameras and crew, but some of the mistakes during the broadcast were inexcusable. And I realize that the guys doing the game for ESPN3 are either interns, or college students, or people fresh out of college, but these were mistakes that can't happen. I'm sure there were more moments than this, but these stood out to me:
- On UNH's opening drive, they lined up for a field goal, and rather than go to the camera they had behind the uprights, just off-center from them, they chose to zoom in on the kicker/holder combo, which is fine to start. But then the ball was snapped, and the kick was up, and the whole time we were still focused on the kicker and holder, with no idea where the ball went, or if the kick was good.
- There were two more plays like that, one on a punt where for some reason they decided to follow CMU punter Richie Hogan the whole time, again, no idea where the ball was, or what happened down the field.
- Same issue again, this time on a 20 yard run. They kept the camera shot on Cooper Rush, who handed off and then stood there and watched the play. Meanwhile, Lavalli was running 20 yards down the field, but we had no way of seeing it.
- The worst though, was during the biggest play of the game, 3rd and 1 for UNH in CMU territory, just over four minutes to go. ESPN3 is in the midst of a replay, then all of a sudden the next thing you see is the ball on the ground and CMU recovering. I had no idea how, or why UNH fumbled, because they were too busy showing a replay of the previous play.
So while it wasn't an ideal way to get their first win of the season, the Chippewas and their fans will take it, and move on to UNLV. A rough first half, but things looked much better in the second half, and most importantly CMU may have found its answer at quarterback while Kater is out.