A clear discrepancy existed between the teams that clashed in Marlins Park on Monday afternoon.
After a 3-0 start and road victory over Oklahoma State, the Central Michigan Chippewas suddenly collapsed. Losses to Virginia and Kent State reversed the hopeful start of 2016, but the final domino fell in the 55-10 loss to Tulsa in the Miami Beach Bowl.
A much-improved Tulsa program notched its 10th victory of the season, while the Chippewas finished the year with a losing record.
The Golden Hurricane offense, led by senior quarterback Dane Evans, simply cruised by the Chippewa defense. Evans displayed efficiency and finished with 304 passing yards and a Miami Beach Bowl-record five touchdowns. The dynamic duo of Keevan Lucas and Josh Atkinson stood as Evans’ favorite targets in the baseball diamond. The two breezed by the Central Michigan secondary, en route to 203 combined yards on 19 total catches.
Not only was the passing game dominant, but the Golden Hurricane running backs were too much for the Chippewas to handle as well. James Flanders and D’Angelo Brewer both eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark, contributing to the strongest offensive performance of bowl season thus far.
The Tulsa offense attacked in a multitude of ways. The Golden Hurricane stormed out of the gate with a series of quick passes. Evans fired darts to receivers on slant and out routes, picking up first downs with ease (34 first downs on the day). A Josh Atkinson touchdown capped off a long, 17-play drive and initiated Tulsa’s scoring rampage.
Central Michigan’s offense proved to be in stark contrast. Cooper Rush threw two interceptions on Central Michigan’s first four possessions, including a rare promising drive that reached the red zone. At the time of the latter interception, the still-hopeful Chippewas only trailed 13-3 with potential to bridge the gap.
But Tulsa’s steady offense capitalized on nearly every punt or mistake in the first half, scoring on its first eight possessions in the bowl game. The lead was 27-3 at halftime and continued to escalate at a rapid pace.
Rush finished 24-of-49 with three interceptions. His final one was a 66-yard pick-six by Jesse Brubaker in the early fourth quarter. This increased Tulsa’s lead to a game-high 52 points, but the Golden Hurricane’s point total stayed stagnant for the remainder of the contest.
The Chippewas’ rushing game was ineffective. Five ball carriers combined to produced 83 yards on 22 carries. Devon Spalding was the primary back, earning seven attempts for 21 yards. Senior running back Jahray Hayes rushed for 18 yards in his final collegiate game and scored the only Central Michigan touchdown in the game, long after the outcome was determined.
Defensively, the Chippewas were unable to create pressure on Dane Evans. Evans had plenty of time on the majority of throws, only facing one sack all afternoon.
Short passes, deep passes, slant routes, fade routes, middle throws, outside throws. They all worked for the senior quarterback, who finishes his career ranking atop of many Tulsa school passing records. In the midst of the game, Tulsa became the first program in college football history to feature a 3,000-yard passer, two 1,000-yard rushers, and two 1,000-yard receivers. The offense’s versatility definitely came in to play, forcing the Chippewas’ defense with a difficult task.
Central Michigan faced constant pressure in stopping both the Golden Hurricane’s running and passing. But it was unable to find an answer. The Chippewas allowed 581 yards and 55 points — both season-worsts for the unit.
With the loss, the Chippewas dropped four of their last five games to finish the season. They were clearly outmatched offensively and defensively by the Golden Hurricane, a 10-win team in a top-heavy American Conference.
In his second season leading the program, John Bonamego finished with his first losing record. A year ago, the Chippewas fared 7-6 with a Quick Lane Bowl loss to Minnesota, but steamrolled through conference play compared to this season’s performance.
Central Michigan folded after a promising non-conference start, but the program will even need to overcome additional obstacles in the offseason.
Rush, a four-year starter (and notably, the record-holder for most passing touchdowns in a bowl game with seven in the 2014 Bahamas Bowl), will graduate, along with star outside linebacker Nathan Ricketts, who led the team with 12 tackles in the blowout loss.
The senior class earned three-consecutive trips to bowl games, but never finished victorious in one. In 2014, there was the incredible fourth quarter comeback against Western Kentucky after trailing 49-14 and a miracle Hail Mary + Hook-and-Ladder play, but Central Michigan ended up falling 49-48. In 2015, Minnesota ousted the Chippewas in a low-scoring affair in Detroit. But they leave with the sourest taste in 2016 after one of the worst defeats in recent bowl game history.
It has been one of the more successful runs in Central Michigan football history, but the program will continue the hunt for its first postseason victory since 2012. The Chippewas were far from leaving Marlins Park with a trophy or winning record, but learned a valuable lesson from Tulsa in a brutal, 55-10 annihilation on Monday afternoon.