Bowl eligibility was on the line for one team, a MAC Championship appearance for the other.
With high stakes, the Central Michigan Chippewas (6-5, 3-4 MAC) pulled through in the fourth quarter to defeat the Ohio Bobcats (7-4, 5-2 MAC) by a final score of 27-20 at Kelly/Shorts Stadium Tuesday night.
Cooper Rush dropped back on third and goal, eyes on the fade pattern. Junior tight end Tyler Conklin stretched his left arm behind Bobcat cornerback Kylan Nelson, who was draped over him. The leather ball stuck to Conklin’s glove, and he pulled it to his chest to secure it near the side boundary of the end zone. Touchdown.
The game-winning touchdown for the Chippewas was the highlight they needed to snap a three-game losing streak. Conklin’s incredible snag occurred with 5:51 remaining, and Central Michigan held firm on defense to conclude the contest.
Defense ruled the beginning of the game. It took 10 drives for either team to find the end zone. The Chippewas’ early drives primarily finished in punts, while Ohio struggled holding onto the ball early. The Bobcats fumbled twice in the first quarter, both costly turnovers in a close game.
The first fumble occurred on a successful fourth down conversion deep into Central Michigan territory. Dorian Brown fought for extra yardage after moving the chains, but the ball came loose. Although no points were scored off the turnover, Central Michigan was able to cash in on the Bobcats’ second fumble for a Brian Eavey field goal.
Offense was finally sparked when Cooper Rush tested the deep ball, firing a 40-yard pass to Corey Willis. Two plays later, Jahray Hayes punched it in from the one-yard line on Senior Night in his final home game.
Hayes’ running was instrumental in guiding the Chippewas’ to a 17-0 lead. His rushes moved Central Michigan down the field and set up a 13-yard strike from Rush to Conklin in the end zone.
With a two-minute drill offense, Ohio was able to appear on the scoreboard and gain three points right before the half from a Louis Zervos field goal.
Maxwell and the Bobcats roared back in the second half. After a touchdown pass to running back Papi White, Ohio found itself back in the game when Maxwell threw a 53-yard pass to Sebastian Smith. One play later, Brown tied the game at 20 on a goal-line dive.
Conklin’s game-winning touchdown would be scored few possessions later, set up by the heroics of Rush in the pocket.
On the Bobcats’ final gasp, they turned it over on downs from a sack around midfield. Almost instantly, they were rejuvenated from a Central Michigan fumble, the Chippewas’ lone turnover in the game.
Ohio drove down the field once more, but Maxwell was sacked by Joe Ostman on third down from the 7-yard line, and threw an interception to Sean Bunting on his final pass in the back of the end zone.
Rush threw for 268 yards and two touchdowns in his final home game. His favorite target, Willis, recorded his fourth 100-yard game of the year, good for 109 in the victory. Conklin had two touchdowns on two catches.
The improved Chippewa offensive line was vital too. Rush had taken 31 sacks on the season, but only was brought down in the backfield once in Tuesday’s game.
Ohio came into the game third in the nation with 36 sacks, led by star defensive end Tarell Basham. Basham and company were effective to limiting Central Michigan to 0.6 yards per carry, but an ineffective pass rush allowed Rush to regain rhythm in the pocket.
With the victory, Central Michigan is destined to appear in a bowl game for the third-consecutive season. After a 3-0 start, it was not in the Chippewas’ vision to achieve the feat this late in the season, but the team has an opportunity to win one more at Eastern Michigan before year’s end.
Ohio did not clinch the MAC East Tuesday night, but can clinch with either a Miami loss to Ball State or with a win versus Akron next Tuesday night.