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Five Things Learned: Central Michigan Chippewas vs. Eastern Michigan Eagles

When fate dictates it’s your time to shine or fade, sometimes it does so in strange ways.

James H. Jimenez

It was a hard-fought game for about a quarter-and-a-half before Kalil Pimpleton (80-yard receiving touchdown) and Jonathan Ward (64-yard receiving touchdown) ripped off two big plays on back-to-back offensive possessions to essentially seal the deal for the Central Michigan Chippewas (3-3, 2-1 MAC) in a decisive 42-16 victory over the Eastern Michigan Eagles (3-2, 0-1 MAC) in Mt. Pleasant.

It was a game which revealed a few things about both teams, as EMU was forced to deal with a different type of adversity they hadn’t faced before, while CMU, for the first time in a couple years, looked dominant against a true opponent.

We wrote down a handful of observations to try and explain what we learned about both teams on Saturday:

This is what the Central offense desires to be

As I may have mentioned before, the offense has operated a hell of a lot more efficiently than it did in 2018.

Coach Jim McElwain, along with first-year offensive coordinator Charlie Frye have seemed to finally settled in on their key offensive personnel, and have developed a gameplan around them which takes advantage of their unique abilities.

The playcalling has been especially been a highlight, as CMU has attacked the middle with a combination of timing routes and power runs, while using the outside numbers to create offensive mismatches, especially on seam routes in the slot. CMU has shown in bits and pieces over the last six games what they desire to be, but Saturday’s game against EMU finally showed what it is they aspire to do moving forward in the most perfect way.

Jonathan Ward has been extremely effective as a down-the-middle rusher, breaking off an 86-yard run late in the game off that action, while also proving himself to be an efficent receiver in the slot, housing a 64-yard touchdown. He looks every bit the back he was in 2017 prior to his injury-filled 2018 season. Kobe Lewis, who spells in for Ward, is an excellent stretch runner when allowed to gain speed, while Kumehnnu Gwilly seems to be the chosen power back when CMU needs to chew clock.

Kalil Pimpleton has been as special as advertised, breaking off an 80-yard reception touchdown on a seam route where he simply beat out his man on release and cruised for an easy pitch-and-catch thanks to his elite acceleration. I can tell you the press box, which normally refrains from cheering, couldn’t help but to marvel at Pimpleton’s speed on that play. He’s been impressive since sitting last season due to transfer rules.

David Moore has also looked excellent at the QB1 spot in his three starts, going 2-2 with key conference wins over EMU and Akron, and nearly leading a comeback rally against Miami (FL). This week, he went 15-of-24 for 279 yards and two touchdowns in what largely became a caretaker role, as he didn’t log a pass attempt after the end of the third quarter. Moore is about as confident as they come with the football right now, and has shown the ability to push the ball when he’s on the field. Next week agaisnt New Mexico State, he may get supplanted by Quentin Dormady, who returns from injury. But CMU fans should be encouraged by his development as a dependable field general.

Central has already flirted with 600 yards in two of their games this season, with 587 yards of offense on Saturday. If they can continue that trend while also avoiding making major mistakes, especially on home turf, in Year 1 of the McElwain Experiment, the future certainly looks bright for the Chippewas on that front.

The Central defense shut down the Eastern attack shrewdly

As I stated coming into the game in my preview this week, CMU had to contain Mike Glass III and force him into bad reads by maintaining pressure on him. It’s safe to say the Chips did just that on Saturday.

Glass, who had been sacked all of four times in four games, was sacked three times by CMU, with his backup Preston Hutchinson also getting sacked twice in the waning moments. The Chippewas also collected 10 tackles-for-loss and four quarterback hits, meaning they were in the backfield quite often.

Glass looked lost at times in the pocket, having to evade pressure consistently. Glass easily had his worst performace of the season per QB rating (10.8) against CMU, finishing a paltry 19-of-33 for 193 yards, one touchdown and one interception, the latter of which was a bad read in the endzone which eventually turned into quick points. The CMU defense really showed up in pass coverge as well, with four pass break-ups, including two by true freshman phenom Kyron McKinnie-Harper, who has quickly proven his worth at the corner spot.

Seven different Chippewas collected the 10 tackles-for-loss, while five different Chips picked up all five sacks, showing the unit’s ferocity in defending the opposing backfield. That much chaos in the backfield also limited the EMU rushing attack (more on that in a second) to 77 rushing yards between eight rushers. They took advantage of a clear talent discrepency and out-exectuted EMU’s offensive attack in every way.

Eastern has to address their inability to run the ball

EMU has been an offense which, up to this point, has been largely reliant on passing the ball to chew clock and maintain possession. That showed itslef to be true in the cumulitive stats, as EMU has struggled to average 97 yards rushing per game, with no rusher averaging more than 37 yards per game (Shaq Vann, who has been relegated to third-string duties.)

EMU has gained 62 first downs through the air compared to 34 rushing, while allowing opponents 57 first downs through the air and 48 on the ground. EMU has shown when they can sustain drives passing, they can maintain possession and keep games close.

But what happens when a team keys in on the run and forces inside action? We found out Saturday, as EMU struggled to get much of anything going on the ground. They finished with 77 net yards and a short-yardage Mike Glass touchdown. The lack of running game especially hurt them on “clutch downs”, as EMU went an abhorrent 2-of-11 on third-down and 0-of-4 on fourth-down attempts. With the Eagles consistently facing third-or-fourth-and-long situations, they were forced to pass for those yards and couldn’t get them due to CMU’s excellent coverage.

To put the rushing woes into even further context, EMU had six first downs by rushing... and five by penalty. They had 21 on the day, with only two on a third-down situation.

In terms of total offensive yards, EMU managed only 285 yards on the day. That’s not going to win games, especially if you can’t convert on clutch downs.

Whether it’s a matter of lacking the personnel to have an effective rushing attack, or if it’s a design of the playcalling by Chris Creighton and the crew, EMU will have to reckon with the consequences as the season moves forward. CMU laid out the plan to stop the Eagles offense; the question will be if EMU makes any adjustments.

The Eastern defense fell apart in the middle

In last week’s preview, I set up the case for why EMU may be in for a rough day, and sure enough, it came true.

EMU’s scoring luck (their TD’s for-to-TD’s lost ratio was 1:1 coming in to the game) stopped working for them, as they only scored two touchdowns after the game was well in hand for CMU, while allowing six.

They were especially taken advantage of in the middle of the field, giving up 308 yards, 13 first downs and four touchdowns to three different players on the ground. CMU averaged an astounding 6.8 yards per attempt and pulled off runs of 19+ yards three times on an EMU defense which struggled to contain CMU’s athleticism.

Jonathan Ward took advantage for an 86-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, while Kobe Lewis ripped off a 28-yard touchdown run and backup QB Tommy Lazzaro, leading the second unit late, scored a six-yard rushing touchdown to cap off a drive which started inside the EMU 10. If it weren’t for an unfortunate fumble by Gwilly inside the EMU redzone, CMU may have capped off a drive featuring zero passing plays with a rushing touchdown late on a drive which lasted over 7:30.

As a defense, they gave up 7-of-15 conversions in clutch downs, including two fourth-down conversions and allowed two redzone scores in three trips on top of the devastating big plays which resulted in points. They also did not collect a sack after collecting 11 over the previous four games, and managed only two tackles-for-loss after collecting 17 in their previous outings. The EMU defense, to their credit, did manage to create two fumbles, but only recovered one, and didn’t get any points off it.

EMU’s defensive dam was fit to burst at some point, and it just happened to do so on Saturday.

The MAC West is still largely up for grabs

The MAC, in general, is experiencing a down year in 2019, and in the MAC West, that means the potential for something weird.

Toledo is looking like far and away the favorite to win the division due to their steadiness as a program. But with the middle of the division all so evenly matched by winning percentage, a two-loss team could still potentially win the division if certain results come down in their favor.

This is all a long way of saying the MAC West is competitive and anyone could win it at this point. Even with a loss, EMU isn’t completely out of it yet, even with a tough loss to CMU. CMU has shown they’re a legitmate contender and that Kelly/Shorts will be a tough visit for anyone who comes in to play, holding a 2-1 record in the MAC. WMU, at 1-1, could even make a run, though they’ll have to depend on a couple Toledo losses in all likelihood.

With NIU and Ball State seemingly in rebuild mode, there’s a real window of opportunity for another team to step in and emerge as the second option in the race for the division crown. In the conference season, it all comes down to execution. The team which is able to gel together in October and November will find themselves well in the running.