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Five Things Learned: Central Michigan Chippewas vs. Kansas Jayhawks

It’s going to be a long season in Mt. Pleasant.

Central Michigan v Kentucky Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Take a deep breath, Chippewa fans: it was bound to happen.

The Jayhawks had been on the warpath for a road win since 2009, and as with all impossible streaks, they eventually have to come to an end. The fact that the Chips happened to be the victim here is something which is just a matter of circumstance and less about how CMU performed.

Fact is, CMU was, in likelihood, Kansas’ best chance at a road win in the last decade and the fact Kansas walked away with the win can be simply a numbers game gone bad. Sometimes, it just plain isn’t your day. That happened to be Sept. 8 for the Maroon and Gold.

So, how did the Chippewas get here exactly? Here’s the five things we noticed upon further review.

The offensive playcalling was questionable, but execution was worse.

There are two sets of numbers which sticks out like a sore thumb. The first being the split in carries and yards between the main rushers. Star running back Jonathan Ward had 10 carries for a total of 29 yards. Backup Kuhmenuu Gwilly had eight carries for the 31 yards, while Tony Poljan led rushers with 43 yards on 10 carries. Combined, that’s 103 net yards.

The second number was the number of first downs in the first half: one. Last season, CMU was one of the more efficient teams at moving the ball down the field and had a hell of a time scoring points early and often against a Kansas squad which looks largely the same from last season.

The first half, in particular, was difficult to fathom, as Poljan went 4-of-5 passing, but the playcalling went nearly 66 percent rushing, with 14 of the 19 offensive plays coming on the ground despite minimal gains. The offense generated one first down the entire first half.

Kansas was keyed in on the Central gameplan from the start, as the Chippewas attempted to get the ground game up-and-running in the first half after a lackluster performance against Kentucky in the previous week. It didn’t work very well at all, as CMU came away with only 37 rush yards between three rushers at the end of the half.

The Chippewas looked rather conservative all game, as if afraid of making mistakes. This makes sense, as the Chips were playing with a makeshift offensive line, but it did not help them at all when it came time to try and win the game. The score was 7-0 at the half and there was no reason they couldn’t have recovered.

The game wasn’t particularly out of hand until the fourth quarter, and the gameplan changed around in the second half, with 26 passing plays and 14 rushing plays. Untimely penalties and costly drops certainly didn’t help, but the Chippewas could never get into a consistent rhythm through the air, resulting in the coaching staff looking for answers as the game wore on.

Like Kentucky in the previous week, Kansas forced CMU to pass more than they wanted to by plugging up gaps in the running game to force Poljan into bad reads. Poljan reacted accordingly, often scrambling out of the pocket to throw errant passes off-rhythm. This caused many problems in the second half, as the game burst open after a Brandon Childress fumble in the first play of the third quarter and four interceptions in the second half, including three in the fourth quarter.

The Chippewas will have to look at their offensive personnel and decide if the current set-up makes sense.

Going into the Kansas game, Chip fans knew there would be some growing pains on the offensive side of the ball. Quarterback and wide receiver especially would be problem spots as new personnel would be taking over at spots which were previously fairly experienced.

Two games into the youth movement, there isn’t exactly a lot of optimism that growth will show itself. Jamil Sabbaugh led all CMU receivers with 41 yards and a touchdown on two receptions, with the majority of the action coming on the 31-yard touchdown pass which kept CMU from getting shut out.

After Sabbaugh, Childress (the most veteran pass catcher remaining on the roster) had four receptions for 35 yards, and Cameron Cole (three receptions, 40 yards) paced the CMU passing atack. Five other Chips combined for 61 yards and nine receptions.

Tony Poljan, who primarily was trying to survive against a suddenly revived Jayhawks pass rush, went 18-of-32 (56 percent completion percentage) for 177 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions. The most damning stat for Poljan in particular was his first half performance, where he went for 23 yards passing (despite going 4-of-5 in those attempts) while heading six-of-eight first half possessions going three-and-out.

Perhaps a shuffle is in order to try and figure out who goes into which spots going into the NIU or Maine game. The next two weeks will certainly be a test of whether or not the coaching staff stays the course with 2018 being a development year or if they try to mix things up to remain competitive for the short-term.

The defense held up extremely well, despite what surface stats might tell you.

One could look at the 31-7 final score and automatically assume that Kansas thoroughly dominated the game in every facet.

This is, in a way, both true and untrue. While Kansas ultimately won the day, it was largely thanks to the ineptitude of the Chippewa offense, as opposed to the Chippewa defense, which held up its end of the bargain on Saturday.

Kansas was held to a total of 151 offensive yards, two first downs, and was forced in punt in five of the six possessions they had in the first half thanks to a ferocious Chippewa defense. This was despite missing starters Xavier Crawford and Alonzo McCoy, two of the Chips’ more expienced and important contributors.

Things started to fall apart in the second half, when cumulative wear resulted in missed tackles and eventually gashes throughout all levels of the defense which were not helped by short CMU possessions.

This is especially evident in the third quarter, when Kansas scored on two big rushing touchdowns gifted to them from shortened possessions. Even the most conditioned of defenses will start to get worn down when one team possesss the ball for nearly 37 minutes, especially when that team is a hurry-up Air Raid squad with Big 12 talent.

CMU should have a lot of fun facing an NIU offense which has scored 7 and 6 points n their last two games, respectively. Devonni Reed has been a revelation at the safety spot, while Alex Briones returned and gave CMU much-needed depth at the linebacker spot after Kentucky largely exposed the middle of the defense in last week’s matchup without him.

Central proved to be undisciplined, especially on special teams and offense.

The Chippewas committed eight penalties as a team, including two “unsportsmanlike conduct” penalties which granted Kansas automatic first downs at crucial junctures.

The turning point proved to be in the third quarter, when CMU was drawn offsides on 3rd and 1 at the CMU 36, which pushed Kansas into Gabriel Rui field goal territory with a new set of downs. Four plays later, Pooka Williams Jr. scored the first of his two touchdowns.

The next possession, CMU drew a delay of game penalty on first down in a drive which could have potentially drawn them within a score. It forced a 1st and 15 situation, which changed the playcalling and resulted in a Joe Dineen interception which was redeemed for another Pooka Williams rushing TD.

The crowning achievement of the undisciplined play was seen late in the fourth quarter, when CMU lined up for a punt with 13 men on the field and tried to rush Jonathan Ward on the field instead of Jabil Sabbaugh. Predictably, the punt coverage went haywire and Ward fumbled, with Kansas recovering in the Chippewa red zone.

These moments could very well have been a insecure moment for a young team with a lot of expectation heaped upon them, especially for a home opener. Regardless, CMU must absolutely clean up on penalties if they hope to stay in games moving forward.

CMU is a work in progress, but not all is lost.

I realize most of this review thus far has largely equated to a dog foaming at the mouth rabid and looking for something to bite upon, but despite such a pessimistic assessment, there’s still time for a good CMU turnaround.

Kentucky and Kansas are at the very least expected losses through the lens of national media types, and typically, a Group of Five team, especially one in CMU’s position, isn’t going to win against even a struggling Power Five team nine times out of ten, so one can look at the next few games on the schedule and reasonable expect to still be able to make some gains.

NIU will be hosting the Chippewas on shaky ground, having take two bad losses themselves in the last two games. They prove to be a very convenient mirror to Central as a team with a struggling young offense paired with an experienced and hungry defense. CMU has won the last five matchups with the Huskies both on the road and away, so all the pressure is on NIU to perform, especially as fans call for the coach’s head.

Maine is a feisty FCS team which just recently collected a win vs. Western Kentucky on the road, but WKU is widely regarded as one of the worst teams in Conference USA and CMU hasn’t lost to an FCS team since North Dakota State in 2007. CMU should have the talent and the motivation to collect a W in front of the hometown fans after a pitiful showing to start the season.

If they can come away with a 2-2 record before playing Michigan State, CMU should be in decent position to compete for a bowl bid, which isn’t bad considering most publications had CMU going 4-8 this season. The adage is if you’re going to lose, lose early. And that becomes especially important as the bowl bids starting get dispersed.