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Central Michigan Chippewas at Ohio Bobcats: Five Things Learned

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Now the MAC East race gets interesting...

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Northern Illinois Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday's MAC slate was nearly as perfect as possible, providing us countless great games throughout the day. The seven-overtime thriller between Western Michigan and Buffalo may serve as the most notable contest of the day, but Central Michigan's upset over the Ohio Bobcats was one of the crucial shakeups in the conference on Saturday afternoon.

After a 2-0 start, Central Michigan dropped three-straight games — a collapse that was mirroring 2016's rapid downfall after the first couple weeks. But the Chippewas stormed into Peden Stadium in Athens and escaped with an improbable victory. Here's what we learned in the Chippewas' 26-23 victory over Frank Solich's Bobcats.

There is so much parity in the MAC

Last season, Western Michigan looked above and beyond the rest of the conference. In the previous years before that, Bowling Green and Northern Illinois met in a trilogy of conference title games. This year, the MAC seems to be fitting the "any given Sunday" mantra, except on Saturdays. After Miami (OH) lost to Bowling Green, Buffalo and Western Michigan skirmished for nearly five hours to decide a winner, Eastern Michigan held Toledo to just 20 points, and Central Michigan upset Ohio on the road, nothing seems to be certain in the conference.

With Ohio falling to 1-1 in conference play, Akron is the sole leader of the MAC East at 2-0. But the Zips' schedule intensifies in the next few weeks, facing Western Michigan, Toledo, and Buffalo all on consecutive Saturdays. The Bobcats should still be the MAC East favorite, but their latest result shows Ohio is very beatable in league play.

Moving to the west, Central Michigan moves to 1-1. The Chippewas do not have the offensive firepower of Western Michigan and Toledo or the defense of Northern Illinois, but John Bonamego's team has shown the ability to win tough games without doing anything out of the ordinary. Central Michigan probably will not represent the division in Detroit this December, but with wins like this, the Chippewas can affect the conference title race and even earn a fourth-straight trip to bowl season.

Fumbles are Ohio's kryptonite

Last Saturday, Ohio finished without a turnover and posted 58 points on UMass as a result. This week, the offense's greatest roadblock was not Central Michigan's tackling or coverage, but its fumbling tendencies. Ohio fumbled twice in the overtime victory over Eastern Michigan and twice in the 44-21 loss at Purdue, but the turnover issue reached its peak on Saturday.

Ohio fumbled three times and threw an interception to add to the calamity. The Bobcats fumbled twice while driving in Central Michigan territory, and the third fumble resulted in seven points for the Chippewas. Quarterback Nathan Rourke was the ball carrier on each turnover, constantly facing pressure from the Central Michigan front four. Defensive ends Mike Danna and Joe Ostman were constantly beating the Ohio offensive line and making their way to Rourke. Both ends forced a fumble and sacked Rourke, and Danna recovered one fumble himself.

Ohio lost the game-swinging turnover battle by a score of 4-1. It only lost the game by a field goal.

Tyler Conklin is the key to Central Michigan's resurgence

In August, Conklin was ruled out indefinitely with a broken bone in his foot. Central Michigan's star tight end finally returned to the gridiron on Saturday, and how fitting was it that his 2017 debut was made against Ohio? Last season, Conklin lifted the Chippewas to bowl eligibility by scoring a game-winning touchdown in a 27-20 upset over Ohio.

This year, Conklin splashed onto the scene with an impressive debut. He tallied 10 receptions, 136 yards, and two touchdowns in the 26-23 victory. Conklin primarily functions as a receiving tight end and is Shane Morris' top weapon on offense. He can make the difficult catch and utilizes plenty of strength to rip 50-50 balls away from defenders. Conklin caught 42 passes for 560 yards and six touchdowns a season ago. If the senior tight end remains healthy, Central Michigan will have the benefit of having the conference's best tight end on its offense.

Central Michigan's special teams execution won the game

According to ESPN, Central Michigan posted the third-highest special teams efficiency rating of Week 6, earning a score 91.6. The unit just trailed Maryland and TCU in the statistic, and deservedly ranked among the nation's highest in the category.

In the play immediately before halftime, Ohio kicker Louie Zervos attempted a 50-yard field goal. The Chippewas blocked the far-out attempt and Sean Bunting returned the ball 60 yards for a score. Before the kick, Central Michigan trailed 14-7. In the aftermath, the Chippewas trailed 14-13, rather than 16-7. And yes, despite their special teams success, they did miss the extra point after the runback.

Central Michigan attained 52 kick return yards and punted for 141 yards, including a long of 50. Ohio averaged just 14.3 yards per kickoff return, constantly setting the Bobcats up in unfavorable field position.

The blocked field goal run back ultimately won the game for the Chippewas, and the special teams unit was a key factor in sliding past the Bobcats. If Bunting didn't reach the end zone on the play, halftime would have commenced with just a 14-7 score.

Ohio's QB controversy settled, but what about Central Michigan's?

Despite the three fumbles and interception on Saturday, Nathan Rourke has performed well at quarterback for Ohio. Rourke led the team to a 58-point outburst in Week 5 and possesses dual-threat abilities, attacking other programs in a multitude of ways. For the second-straight week, Rourke passed for over 150 and ran for over 100 yards, finishing with at least three total touchdowns. It'd be surprising if Quinton Maxwell came in for Rourke again at this point in the season.

Former Michigan-transfer quarterback Shane Morris is in his first season in Mount Pleasant and at times, it's been pleasant. Saturday was one of those occasions. Morris earned 249 yards through the air and found Conklin in the end zone for two touchdowns. It was a good recovery from the previous week, where Morris only completed 50 percent of his passes and threw three interceptions to the Boston College defense. Morris struggled in Central Michigan's other two losses as well, throwing two interceptions and failing to complete passes above the 50 percent mark in each of the Syracuse and Miami (OH) games.

Freshman quarterback Tony Poljan stands above the rest of the team, literally. The 6-foot-7 quarterback has a small sample size of 11 passes, but has completed eight of them for 60 yards. Poljan primarily throws screens or checks in for rushing plays. The freshman ran for 24 yards against Ohio, totaling 77 rushing yards this season.

Morris looks to be the guy for now for the 3-3 Chippewas, but with Poljan's efficiency and running ability, it might be time to see how the freshman can perform as conference play enters full swing.