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2018 MAC Football Preview: Central Michigan Chippewas vs. Kansas Jayhawks

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The Chippewas look to #FlyTheFlag in their home opener against the struggling Jayhawks.

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Both the Central Michigan Chippewas (0-1) and the Kansas Jayhawks (0-1) come into Saturday with a number on the wrong side of the column, but the records don’t tell the whole story.

CMU traveled to Kentucky and put up a tough fight against the promising Wildcats at Kroger Field, building up a 17-7 lead late in the second quarter on the strength of four forced turnovers before Kentucky woke up and came back to win the game 35-20. The Chips looked better than expected on defense and showed a decent start on offense, aided in part to turnovers, but there will be much to improve on heading into Saturday’s tilt.

Kansas, on the other hand, had a bit different of an outcome. They hosted FCS squad Nicholls State, and were thoroughly dominated on every side of the ball in a 26-23 two-overtime loss. NSU had more yards of offense, more first downs, more third down conversions, more red zone chances and conversions, more time of possession and collected six sacks to Kansas’ one. It’s safe to say there isn’t a lot of optimism in Lawrence.

KU head coach David Beatty absolutely must come home with a win on the road, which would be the Jayhawks’ first such victory since 2009 as a program. If he doesn’t, the pitchfork-armed riot squad back home in Kansas might resort to arson.

This makes the game on Saturday an extremely intriguing one (if not for the actual football matchup, then maybe for the storylines.)

So, just what should we expect from the game itself?


Players to Watch

Jonathan Ward, RB, Central Michigan

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

Ward had an uncharacteristic game against Kentucky, rushing for only 36 yards on 11 carries with no touchdowns and a fumble last Saturday, which isn’t too surprising considering UK has SEC-level talent on defense. The Wildcat’s defensive plan was centered on stopping the run and it worked to perfection. No rusher had more than 47 yards, while the whole team combined for 118 yards between five rushers.

The performance is marked in a decidedly embarrassing light, however, when you consider his comments about UK’s running back Bennie Snell (who rushed for 125 yards and a touchdown) leading up to the game. This will surely give the shifty back motivation against a Kansas team which gave up 187 yards and three touchdowns on 50 attempts against FCS Nicholls State.

Tony Poljan, QB, CMU

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Tony Poljan is a big boy.

The six-foot-seven, 235 lb. redshirt sophomore quarterback out of Lansing Catholic HS is in his first year as the starter after sitting behind Michigan transfer Shane Morris in 2017. His first game was a bit up-and-down, as he finished 17-for-27 with 135 passing yards and 47 rushiing yards (which led the team.) But he didn’t throw any interceptions, which, one supposes, can be a positive on an otherwise dreary day on offense.

A true dual-threat quarterback, Poljan isn’t afraid to take the ball and run in the run-pass option, especially on QB power looks. This could spell a bit of trouble for Kansas, whose defensive front only managed one sack last week.

Devonni Reed, DB, CMU

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Central Michigan ultimately lost against Kentucky, but if they would have held on for the win, there’d be one name on the lips of every Chippewa fan: Devonni Reed.

The true freshman was on fire from the start, getting a lot of looks at safety and running with it. He finished the day with an astounding 14 tackles (11 solo), one interception on his only pass defended and a touchdown return. His 14 total tackles paced all defensive players and doubled his next-best teammate Trevor Apsey (7.) He’s a candidate to get a start against Kansas.


Steven Sims, Jr., WR, Kansas

NCAA Football: Nicholls State at Kansas Amy Kontras-USA TODAY Sports

The image above was seen a lot in Lawrence on Saturday night. When you go back and watch the tape, there was a seeming lack of chemistry between Sims and starting QB Peyton Bender. Sims dropped at least three catches by my count, including a wide-open touchdown pass wherein he beat the NSU defensive back by ten yards, and finished with 29 yards on four catches for the day.

All that said, Sims is still the most talented and reliable option Kansas has in the passing game, so he’ll be a player to watch out for. The five-foot-ten, 176 lb. senior receiver out of Houston, Texas, finished with 59 receptions for 839 yards and six touchdowns, while averaging 14.2 yards per reception. Sims can be dangerous when he’s on and there will be plenty of motivation to get going after a rough showing to start the season.

Joe Dineen, Jr., LB, Kansas

NCAA Football: Texas Tech at Kansas Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

A native of Lawrence, Kansas, Joe Dineen, Jr. has plenty of motivation to perform at his best for his hometown Jayhawks.

Dineen is easily the most talented player on the roster, having been named to Sports Illustrated’s All-American second-team squad in 2017 after abanner season which saw him rank eighth in program history in single-season tackles (137) and setting the program record in tackles-for-loss (25) while also adding on 2.5 sacks, two quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. Dineen registered 10 or more tackles in 10 of the 12 games he played in and played tricks on CMU last season, when he registered 12 tackles, two tackles for loss and a QB hurry.

Dineen has great pro potential and with good reason. He has a great eye for runners and has all the measurables you look for in an inside linebacker.

Daniel Wise, DL, Kansas

NCAA Football: SE Missouri State at Kansas Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Daniel Wise is the other defensive anchor for the Jayhawks, as the primary causer of chaos on the defensive front four.

Wise finished last season with All-Big XII first-team honors by the coaches and All-Big XII second-team honors by the Associated Press after a season which saw 53 tackles, 16 tackles-for-loss, seven sacks, five quarterback hurries, one pass breakup and a forced fumble. Last season saw Wise relatively humbled by CMU, who held the six-foot-three, 290 lb. tackle to just three tackles (one tackle-for-loss) and a pass breakup, so it will interesting to see how he adjusts this go-around.


Keys to the Game

Kansas wins if...

Kansas has to find its offensive rhythm right at the start, otherwise they’re in deep trouble. The Chippewas were one of the nation’s best havoc-causing defenses in 2017 and showed no signs of stopping that reputation against Kentucky last week. In order for the Jayhawks to try and make the upset bid to end the nine-year true road losing streak, the Kansas offensive line will have to hold back a strong front seven which could return a suspended Alex Briones and recently added Nebraska transfer Andrew Ward due to an eligibility waiver acceptance. (That’s before we talk about Malik Fountain or Mike Danna.)

If they can’t stop leaks in the offensive line, it’s going to be a tough day for David Beatty and company.

Central Michigan wins if...

They cannot waste effort. Kansas may have lost to Nicholls State last week, but they’re still a Power Five squad with plenty of individual talent which can be dangerous. The offense struggled against Kentucky, so look for coach John Bonamego to try and get that going early to get a bit of a cushion formed in front of the home fans.

That said, the defense will have to carry CMU through the day. Causing turnovers and giving the offense a short field will go a long way in helping the Chippewas gain a digit in the win column, epsecially since the offense under Poljan and Ward is still extremely young and breaking in new pieces all over the field.


Game Notes

Time and Date: Saturday, September 8, 3:00 p.m. EST

Network: ESPN+

Venue: Kelly/Shorts Stadium, Mt. Pleasant, Michigan (capacity: 30,255)

Spread: CMU -6, 50 o/u, per OddsShark.

ESPN FPI Predictor: CMU has 57.3% chance to win.

Series history: Kansas leads the series, 2-1. CMU won the last meeting in 2017 by a final of 45-27.


Prediction

Homerism aside, Central Michigan probably has no business losing this game.

The roster is just as, if not more, talented than the Jayhawks’ roster and CMU mollywhopped this team on the road last year, so playing with home field behind you has to be an advantage. Combine Kansas’ general football ineptitude and all the pressure facing Beatty and the rest of the team, and the ingredients for a blowout are all there.

Kansas might give a bit of push, but alas, Central should win the day.