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Remembering 2007: The Year of the Chippewa

The emergence of Antonio Brown, an up-and-down schedule and an all-time classic bowl game made for an interesting year in Mt. Pleasant.

Central Michigan Chippewas v Georgia Bulldogs Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

It’s already been a decade since the collegiate year 2007, which brought us a lot of memorable moments.

Who can forget the cult hero that was Tim Tebow plowing over some dudes at the goal line? Or Louisiana-Monroe beating Alabama by a touchdown... at Alabama? Or, perhaps, my favorite collegiate football memory: the Block Heard Round The World.

Well, 2007 holds a special place in my heart for one reason: it was the season that introduced me to the Central Michigan Chippewas.

Prior to 2007, I had never known of CMU. I was a recent transplant to Michigan, having moved to Grayling, 70 minutes directly north of Mt. Pleasant, in 2004. I only knew of two schools: Michigan and Michigan State. So it was really awesome to see there were other options out there for my fandom. I certainly chose the right team to follow.

The 2007 Chippewas were an interesting group. They were lead by first-year head coach Butch Jones, who was looking to prove himself in his first FBS head coaching gig. Jones, who would go on to coach at Cincinnati and Tennessee, was yet to become the Champion of Life we all know him to be today.

Dan LeFevour had yet to capture national attention, but had an electric 2006 season that put him on the map in the deeper webs of the college football landscape. Antonio Brown, a true freshman, was a unknown commodity. JJ Watt was a tight end looking to make himself a contributor.

There was a lot to live up to after Brian Kelly set the bar in 2006, prior to taking the job in Cincinnati. The ‘06 season saw the Chips go 10-4 (7-1 MAC) with LeFevour at the reins and Ontario Snead and Brian Anderson providing strong offensive focal points for the 20th-ranked offense by points per game (34.8).

While the Chippewas under Jones weren’t quite as successful in his first year, the season was still a great one by mid-major standards. CMU finished 8-6 (6-1 MAC), with key wins against Kent State, Akron and Western Michigan at a crucial stretch after a bad non-conference loss to Clemson.

The Chips’ success was directly attributed to Brown, who collected 102 receptions for 1,002 yards and eight total touchdowns (six receiving, one rusing and one kickoff return) and LeFevour, who collected 3,554 total yards and 33 total touchdowns. The defense was also exceptional: three Chippewas had over 100 tackles, including Thomas Keith (148), Issac Brown (106) and Nick Bellore (102), while Josh Gordy had four interceptions (including a return touchdown) and Frank Zombo dominated the pass rush, getting to the quarterback for 7.5 sacks and collecting 62 tackles, including 10.5 for a loss.

The Chippewas secured the MAC West title with a close win against Akron to play the Miami RedHawks in Detroit, winning the MAC Championship 35-10. That victory clinched CMU a date with the Purdue Boilermakers in the Motor City Bowl at the same venue.

What made that game interesting was the fact it was a rematch. CMU lost the previous bout at Ross-Ade Stadium 45-22 on Sept. 15, which was sandwiched in a bad 1-3 stretch that also saw the Chips lose in blowouts to Kansas and North Dakota State. The 2007 Motor City Bowl was an instant classic, with CMU and Purdue playing a closely fought offensive shootout in front of a near-record 60,624 fans. Ultimately, Purdue kicked a game-winning field goal as time ran out to win 51-48 and Curtis Painter, who threw for a then-bowl record 543 yards, won MVP honors.

In case you forgot how insane the final two minutes were, here’s a reminder from the fan’s perspective:

The 2007 season, understandably, gets buried next to seasons such as 2006 and 2009, but it holds a near and dear place in my heart and is a key stepping stone in the program’s development.

They weren’t perfect; the ‘07 Chippewas gave up more points than they scored (36.9 PPG, or 112th of 120 FBS teams), which is bad. They also had some really questionable efforts in certain games. One only needs to look at the NDSU or Clemson score to understand that. But it was a young team and sometimes you have to learn the hard way.

Butch Jones was able to build (and eventually improve upon) the roster Brian Kelly had left him and at a critical juncture, kept CMU from falling into the pt of mediocrity that can occur during such a dramatic coaching change.

2007 marked the beginning of a turn for CMU’s football program and launched a modern golden era unseen since the 1970’s, culminating in 2009 with an AP Top 25 ranking for its efforts, the program’s only appearance on the prestigious poll.

2007 was the first season I started paying attention to football, and I have the Chippewas to thank for that.