The Central Michigan Chippewas (6-6, 3-5 MAC) and Tulsa Golden Hurricane (9-3, 5-3 AAC) will take their talents to South Beach in a Monday afternoon matchup at Marlins Park for the 2016 rendition of the Miami Beach Bowl.
CMU comes into the game after a wild and rambunctious season that saw them beat Oklahoma State on a last-second Hail Mary heave, miss three field goals against Kent State at home in a loss and win a game on a one-handed, behind-the-back touchdown grab to attain bowl-eligibility against Ohio.
In their last game action, the Chippewas lost to rival Eastern Michigan on the road despite a furious comeback attempt in the fourth quarter, the first time CMU had lost to EMU since 2011.
Tulsa’s season saw a little more success, with close losses to then-ranked divisional rivals Houston and Navy in the conference season that prevented them from advancing to the AAC Championship game.
Tulsa faced a challenge in the 4-8 Cincinnati Bearcats in the final game of the regular season, winning the game by six points in overtime in a game where they were heavy double-digit favorites.
The teams have played twice all-time, with the last game played in 1987. CMU won the rematch of the previous 1986 tilt in Mt. Pleasant by a final of 42-18.
What to watch for with Central Michigan:
Cooper Rush will decide the fate of the CMU offense.
Rush is consistent, if nothing else. He averages about 265 passing yards per game over his career and is chasing the ghost of Dan LeFevour for the school’s all-time passing mark and to climb further up the top-10 all-time conference list.
With substantial injuries to the running game early in the year, Rush has been depended upon to make plays using his knowledge of the system in order to keep CMU afloat during games. Tyler Conklin has filled in as a nice security blanket with the absence of Jesse Kroll and Corey Willis has become the deep threat for CMU’s offense. Rush has been known for heroic performances in bowl games (2014 Bahamas Bowl, anyone?) so it wouldn’t be out of character for Rush to blow up in his final game as a senior.
If Rush struggles, so do the Chippewas.
Stop the passing game
Tulsa owns one of the more efficient Air Raid offenses in the country, gaining 3,529 yards in 2016, averaging 13.15 yards per completion and 7.63 yards per attempt, with 28 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
The Chippewas have two all-MAC corners in Josh Cox and Amari Coleman and one of the more-respected safeties in the conference in Tony Annese in the defensive backfield to counter Tulsa. It will be key for those three players to limit Tulsa’s options early on and force Tulsa into running the ball. Backups such as Sean Bunting and Otis Kearney will also be key in this matchup when Tulsa tries to spread CMU out.
What to watch for with Tulsa:
Force CMU to keep guessing on defense
The key to Tulsa’s offensive success this year is a basic variation on the Air Raid philosophy. The way head coach Phillip Montgomery incorporates Run and Shoot tactics into the playbook to open up the deep pass has helped the Golden Hurricane hold the sixth-most efficient offense in the country.
Quarterback Dane Evans will prove to be an interesting matchup problem for CMU, as the Chips showed some struggles with up-tempo offenses during the year. The players to watch for, however, will be James Flanders and D’Angelo Brewer, Tulsa’s two 1000-yard rushers. Flanders and Brewer share the load for the offense and are known for their quickness and agility off the line. They’re also receiving threats out of the backfield.
If Tulsa can find a way to keep CMU honest in its defensive playcalling throughout the game, that could prove to play into Tulsa’s advantage.
Stop Cooper Rush by limiting his options
Tulsa was a middling-to-poor pass defense over the course of 2016, standing at 90th in the country, allowing 2,980 yards through the air and 16 touchdowns. Opponents, on average, passed for 248.3 yards with 12.68 yards per completion. In short, Tulsa’s inability to stop the pass cost them.
Their rushing defense wasn’t much better; the Golden Hurricane were 72nd in the country in that category, allowing 27 touchdowns on 2,209 yards.
Tulsa’s likeliest option for stopping the Chippewa offense will be to attack Rush and the ofensive line early and often and force him to make plays with his arm. If they establish that early on, CMU might have to rely on a paltry rushing offense (rankd 117th in the country) to try and spark any sort of big play. Contain Rush and half of the battle is already over.
Here’s some facts to know heading into the game:
Location: Marlins Park in downtown Miami, Florida. A baseball field with grassy turf, no dirt. There is a retractable dome.
Weather: Sunny, with a high of 82 on Monday with a 20 percent chance of rain, per Weather Channel.
Odds: Tulsa favored by 11, down from opening 12.5. Over/under of 69, up from opening line of 67.5, per OddsShark.
TV/streaming: Monday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. EST on ESPN. Will also be played on the WatchESPN app, ESPN3 and will be aired on ESPN Radio as well.