Central Michigan escaped Week 1 on a walk-off touchdown. While it may sound like an exciting game to remember for the Chippewa faithful, the game raised many questions about whether Central Michigan's three-year bowl run is coming to a close.
The Chippewas knocked off FCS foe Rhode Island 30-27 in Mt. Pleasant on opening Thursday: in three overtimes. John Bonamego's team had to rely on the Rams to miss a field goal in second overtime after nearly fumbling the game away. Luckily for the maroon and gold, the Chippewas earned another opportunity in third overtime, where they would score the game-winning touchdown on a Devon Spalding run.
Central Michigan out-gained Rhode Island by over 100 yards, earned nine more first downs, and intercepted six passes, but nearly fell to 0-1. A win is a win, however, and Central Michigan earns an opportunity to take down one of the Power Five's perennial bottom feeders.
The Kansas Jayhawks' last taste of the Mid-American Conference ended with a 37-21 loss at the hands of Ohio in Lawrence. But for the second consecutive season, Kansas opens 1-0, with a victory over an FCS school. This year, the Jayhawks' target was Southeast Missouri State, but last season, Kansas dismantled Rhode Island 55-6. There is no transitive property in sports and the games occurred in different seasons, but Central Michigan's performance against a common opponent is eye-popping.
Kansas is now riding a two-game home winning streak into Saturday's matchup. The Jayhawks defeated Texas in their final game at Memorial Stadium a season ago. While Kansas may not be ready to contend for a bowl yet, this is definitely an improved team under third-year coach David Beaty. Beaty is transforming Lawrence from the ground up by recruiting. He has a fantastics class for 2018 in the works and he has excelled in recruiting since he first stepped foot on campus.
Players to Watch
Peyton Bender, QB, Kansas
The former Mike Leach product threw four touchdowns in his Jayhawks' debut last Saturday. After transferring from Washington State, Bender played a season at a community college. The Fort Lauderdale native selected Kansas over Georgia and Western Kentucky and has already made an impact in Beaty's offense. Bender completed 23-of-37 passes in Kansas' opener, completing a 77-yard strike to receiver Steven Sims Jr. to begin the season.
Steven Sims Jr., WR, Kansas
The 5-foot-10 receiver from Houston functions as Kansas' DeSean Jackson. In fact, Sims switched numbers from 16 to 11 in honor of his favorite player for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The two explosive deep threats are almost identical in height and weight and are both primed to beat corners with speed down the field. Sims only has four catches this season but those catches resulted in 142 yards (35.5 yards per catch). He caught two touchdowns against Southeast Missouri State and is utilized as a return specialist on both kicks and punts. As Kansas' leader in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns a season ago, Sims is set for an impressive junior year with Bender as his new quarterback.
Jonathan Ward/Devon Spalding, RB, Central Michigan
Ward carried the Chippewas' offense to their first victory of 2017. The sophomore returned nicely from a 2016 injury to rush for 147 yards in the season debut. Ward added one touchdown and averaged 7.7 yards per carry. He should be the focal point of the Chippewas' offense when trying to move the chains and collect first downs.
Devon Spalding earned 20 carries in Week 1, finishing with 70 yards and one game-winning touchdown. The senior splits carries with Ward and offensive coordinator Chris Ostrowsky plans to keep Central Michigan's rushing offense versatile throughout the season.
“The importance of running the football is still a staple in our offense,” Ostrowsky told CM Life back in late August. “It’s not a situation where we think we are going to throw it 50 times each game because that’s not the case.”
Central Michigan did not throw 50 times in the opener; the team threw 54. But the Chippewas' were wildly inaccurate in the passing game, especially on throws exceeding 20 yards. If Ward and Spalding are provided the keys to the offense, Central Michigan is in its best shape to sneak out a road win at Kansas.
Alex Briones, OLB, Central Michigan
Briones was one of Week 1's most impressive standouts not only in the Mid-American Conference, but in the FBS. The junior outside linebacker contributed greatly to Central Michigan's defensive effort, tallying 11 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble, and one interception in the 30-27 victory. Briones set plenty of career-highs last Thursday and now looks to be the emerging leader of the Chippewas' defense, along with pass-rushing defensive end Joe Ostman.
Keys to the Game
Stick with the ground game, CMU
Central Michigan's 499 yards in Week 1 ended up cashing in for just 30 points (21 in regulation). The team rushed for 256 yards on 50 attempts, finding optimal success when placing the ball in the hands of Jonathan Ward. Shane Morris finished 25-of-49 passing and backup Tony Poljan completed 3-of-5 passes — both quarterbacks barely eclipsing the 50-percent completion mark. The senior Michigan transfer (Morris) and the 6-foot-7-inch freshman (Poljan) will both likely see field action in the near future and they both might split time in Lawrence on Saturday.
But if Central Michigan wants a coveted Power Five win and a second Big 12 win in two seasons, the Chippewas must elect to keep the ball on the ground, especially on first downs and short yardage situations. Kansas allowed over 236 rushing yards per game a season ago, and the Chippewas must take advantage with their own formidable running back duo.
Turnovers may be frequent, so take advantage
In Kansas' 38-16 win over an FCS opponent, the Jayhawks lost the turnover battle 3-to-1. Bender threw two interceptions to start his Kansas tenure and actually finished with more picks than touchdowns in his brief Washington State career. He is capable of lighting up the box score, but must limit interceptions in order to increase Kansas' win total in a slightly-more-promising 2017 season.
Speaking of interceptions, Central Michigan leads the nation in the category. Even though several teams have played two games, the Chippewas reign superior with six interceptions in 2017. Bonamego's team has already shown impressive ability in coverage, consistently appearing in the right place at the right time. Kansas still turned out okay when losing the turnover battle, but Central Michigan absolutely needed those six interceptions to halt Rhode Island's momentum and defeat the Rams on Week 1.
Kickoff in Lawrence is scheduled for 4 p.m. EST on Saturday, September 9. Both teams are sitting at 1-0 after wins over FCS programs before entering FBS-FBS action. Kansas left victorious after both previous matchups between the teams, including a 24-10 victory over Dan Enos and the Chippewas in 2014.
It's Week 2, and both competitors in this battle have notable Week 2s from a season ago. Kansas lost to the Ohio Bobcats in the team's most recent matchup against the MAC. Central Michigan upset Oklahoma State on a Hail Mary, lateral play in the team's most recent matchup against the Big 12.
Central Michigan's Week 1 may be a sign of things to come. The Chippewas need time to adjust to life without Cooper Rush under center. The passing game is incredibly inefficient and the defense mightily struggled in the fourth quarter against Rhode Island, a team that lost an FCS game 84-7 in 2016.
But, the run game is promising and so is Alex Briones. Not all hope is lost in Mt. Pleasant. If there is a Power Five win attainable for the 2017 Central Michigan Chippewas, it's against Kansas.
However, this Kansas team gives off a new vibe. Maybe it's the victory over Texas, maybe it's David Beaty finally settling in as the team's head coach for the future. The Jayhawks won't do much damage in the Big 12 this year, but home wins over struggling Group of Five programs are definitely within reach. Peyton Bender will have a breakout performance on Saturday in front of the home crowd, leading Kansas to 2-0 for the first time since 2011.