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2017 Football Season in Review: Central Michigan Chippewas

The future is promising for a Chippewa program which seems to be well ahead of schedule.

NCAA Football: Potato Bowl-Central Michigan vs Wyoming Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

It didn’t quite end the way the Central Michigan Chippewas (8-5, 6-2 MAC) probably wanted it to, but all considered, 2017 was a pretty great season for the young program.

The schedule promised a favorable non-conference slate and a gauntlet of a conference calendar, so to come out of the pile at 8-4 and in the hunt for the MAC West division title is pretty good for a Chippewa squad who had a lot of questions going into the season.


Season Overview:

2017 Central Michigan Football Schedule

Date Opponent Result
Date Opponent Result
8/31 Rhode Island 30-27 (OT) W
9/9 at Kansas 45-27 W
9/16 at Syracuse 42-17 L
9/23 Miami 31-14 L
9/30 at Boston College 28-10 L
10/7 at Ohio 26-23 W
10/14 Toledo 30-10 L
10/21 at Ball State 56-9 W
11/1 at Western Michigan 35-28 W
11/8 Eastern Michigan 42-30 W
11/14 at Kent State 42-23 W
11/24 Northern Illinois 31-24 W
12/22 Potato Bowl vs. Wyoming 37-14 L

Many saw CMU finishing at 2-2 coming out of the non-conference slate, but they perhaps didn’t see it happening as it did. The Chippewas stumbled out of the gate vs. a lackluster Rhode Island team on the upset bid, having to depend on a missed potential game-winning field goal by the Rams to overcome Rhody in overtime.

The next week saw them turn Kansas into burnt toast (a Kansas team, which coincidentally, snapped a two-season, 15-game long losing skid against Rhode Island in 2016) before getting steamrolled by an unexpectedly strong Syracuse running attack to put the Chips at 2-1.

The Chips came back home to face a much-maligned Miami RedHawks squad trying to get on the right side of the win column after some questionable last-minute debacles in their previous games and wilted in the 98-degree summer heat to place them back at 2-2.

CMU went 1-2 over the next three games, book-ended by blowout losses to Boston College and Toledo, respectively, which gave head coach John Bonamego and his staff some tough questions to face as the team was notably struggling at 3-5.

There was no denying injuries greatly affected the Chippewas’ ability to move the ball. At one point, Tyler Conklin, Corey Willis, Brandon Childress, Devon Spalding, and Logan Hessbrook were all injured, single-handedly decimating the CMU receiving corps. Even still, the 3-5 record had many wondering if the season could be salvaged, especially with the majority of the MAC West gauntlet still to go.

Fans clamored for transfer graduate Shane Morris to give way to freshman phenom Tony Poljan, who saw some time at wide receiver, tight end and quarterback throughout the season, but Bonamego ultimately decided to stick to the Michigan transfer.

The decision turned out to be the best one. Morris had a resurgence in the second half of the schedule, throwing 72-of-128 passes for 1,141 yards, 14 passing touchdowns and two interceptions (Morris had 11 interceptions in the prior seven games.)

CMU went on a five-game winning streak to finish the season at 8-4, a record which had not been seen in Mt. Pleasant since 2009, when the Chips finished at 12-2. CMU would ultimately lose to Wyoming in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in embarrassing fashion, but the loss certainly doesn’t negate all the positives the 2017 season bore for a young Chippewas program.


Who’s Leaving?

There is no denying the Chippewas will dearly miss a lot of its senior leadership in 2017, with many of CMU’s biggest names leaving the team, whether for the NFL Draft or for other future endeavours.

Here’s a sampling of the names leaving CMU in 2017:

QB Shane Morris

WR Corey Willis

WR Mark Chapman

TE Tyler Conklin

OL Joe Austin

OL Derek Edwards

OL Austin Doan

DE Joe Ostman

DB Amari Coleman

DB Josh Cox

Of this crop of seniors, Conklin, Coleman, Cox and Ostman are expected to get the most looks as potential pro prospects heading into this year’s NFL Draft, while Morris could get some looks in the free agency period.

The defense will definitely be affected the most, with both starting corners and the best defensive lineman all departing at once from a unit which was tops in the country in terms of forced takeaways during the 2017 season.

It should also be noted CMU will be graduating four offensive lineman in the 2017 class, including three starters in Joe Austin, Derek Edwards and Austin Doan, a change which could potentially affect CMU’s offense down the road, especially as they try to adjust to a new quarterback.

The amount of talent departing the roster is fairly significant, with multiple all-MAC selections and current school record holders leaving the program due to gradutation. A slight tail-off recordwise wouln’t be surprising, given the circumstances.


Who’s Returning?

Thankfully for CMU, they’ve assembled some sneaky good recruiting classes which should help shore up for a lack of senior leadership. They’ve also wrangled in a handful of Power Five transfers in Ja’Raymond Hall (Michigan) and Kalil Pimpleton (Virginia Tech) who will look to contribute in 2018.

Amongst the most noteworthy returners are as follows:

QB Tony Poljan

RB Jonathan Ward

RB Devon Spalding

WR Brandon Childress

TE Logan Hessbrook

OL Clayton Walderzak

DL Mitch Stantizek

DL Nate Brisson-Fast

LB Malik Fountain

LB Alex Briones

DB Da’Quan Jamison

Devon Spalding will be returning to CMU on a medical hardship exemption to complete his final year of eligibility, giving the Chips offense a much-needed senior presence. He’ll likely be the backup to Jonathan Ward, who burst onto the scene as a jack-of-all-trades hybrid back in the second half of the season.

Ward accumulated 1,487 total yards and 14 total touchdowns in 2017, taking over as the primary back after the Boston College game. Ward showed excellent burst and open-field ability as a runner and proved himself to be a reliable receiving target out of the backfield as well in his first season seeing the field for every contest. Ward averaged 5.7 yards per carry and 9.6 yards per reception on the season and became a go-to option whenever CMU needed to move the chains.

All eyes on offense, however, will be on six-foot-seven, 237 lb. Tony Poljan, the rising redshirt sophomore QB from Lansing Catholic HS. The four-star recruit who committed to CMU as a QB despite interest from multiple Big Ten schools as a TE saw some playing time this season in non-traditional roles, primarily as a receiver.

In limited time at QB this season, Poljan showed good accuracy on short passes, completing 10-of-17 passes for 63 yards and rushing 23 times for 110 yards. Poljan, an ESPN 300 member as a senior, was known as a dual-threat option coming out of Lansing Catholic, throwing for 6,090 yards and 58 otuchdowns and rushing for an additional 3,118 yards and 58 touchdowns. He’ll be the favorite heading into this season’s fall camps.


2018 Outlook

Non-conference games (2017 records)

at Kentucky (5-7)

vs. Kansas (2-10)

vs. Maine (4-6 FCS)

at Michigan State (10-3)

Conference games

Home: Ball State, Western Michigan, Buffalo, Bowling Green

Away: Eastern Michigan, Northern Illinois, Toledo, Akron

The out-of-conference slate once again looks good for the Chips to get off to a fast start, as there are two gimmie games vs. FCS Maine and a bad Kansas squad. They’ll open up against a interesting Kentucky squad in what could potentially be a toss-up game if CMU’s offense clicks in year four of Bonamego’s guidance. Michigan State is a likely loss, but still a fun, regional rivalry which should see a great atmosphere.

CMU will host one rival (WMU) and travel to another (EMU) in defense of the Michigan MAC trophy, while drawing extremely tough away games to both 2017 divisional champions (Toledo and Akron.) THey also draw two of the more interesting MAC East squads in Buffalo and Bowling Green, both of which feature massively fun vertical offenses which could test an extremely young defense.

It’s usually safe to say CMU will finish in the 6-6 or 7-5 range, and I’m confident that wil be the case once again in terms of playing the prediction game. With the relative youth of this upcomng Chip squad, it’ll be difficult to prognosticate how the product will look on the field until they step foot on the Kentucky bluegrass in Lexington.


Final Word

If you’re a Chippewa fan, you should be relatively excited about how much CMU has overperformed against expectations. 2017, in particular, showed a lot of signs of progress even despite the early season adversity on the offensive side.

The coaching staff admitted its mistakes and changed its philosophies, something you rarely see at many programs, and the results blossomed into one of the best offensive attacks seen in Mt. Pleasant in recent seasons.

The defense also bowed up to the competition, proving to be opportunistic and hectic in most of its appearances throughout the year. It’ll miss a lot of its biggest contributors next year, but the younger players, such as Jamison, Briones and Brisson-Fast showed there’s also plenty of potential to repeat the effort in 2018.

The future also looks exciting due to the crop of talent the school has managed to reel in recruiting, with many three-and-four star recruits seriously considering making CMU their home, a compliment to CMU’s hustle and increased name recognition as a pro-producing program.

Four years ago, when CMU was left out to dry by former head coach Dan Enos weeks before National Signing Day and hired John Bonamego to his first collegiate head coaching job after nearly 16 years out of the college game, many had (justifiable) doubts as to whether or not the program would be competitive in the near future. Not only has CMU proven itself to be competitive, they’ve been an exciting program to watch grow and develop.

There’s a lot of reason for optimism and pride in Mt. Pleasant, and it’s largely thanks to the work of the coaching staff in creating an expectation out of their players and getting them to accomplish it on the field, something which wasn’t always apparent under previous coaching regimes.