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Five Things Learned: Central Michigan Chippewas at Ball State Cardinals

There’s a lot to be happy about if you’re a Chippewa. Less so if you’re a Cardinal.

James H. Jimenez

The Central Michigan Chippewas (7-4, 6-3 MAC) pulled off one of the most fantastic upset victories of the season to take home a much-needed win on the road against the hosting Ball State Cardinals (4-6, 3-3 MAC) to stay alive in the MAC West divisional race.

The Chippewas had to close three 17-point leads to find themselves in contention for victory on what would prove to be the deciding drive, when Tommy Lazzaro ran untouched into the endzone for a touchdown to put CMU up 45-44 with 1:01 to go on a read-option look set up by a Quinten Dormady run into goal line territory a couple plays earlier.

It was a meltdown of epic proportions for Ball State, who committed several self-inflicted penalties (with one player getting ejected for the entire second half in starting cornerback Antonio Phillips) and played conservatively on offense to let Central back into the game late.

There was a lot to learn on both sides of the affair.

The Lazzaro package is no fluke

The hero of the day without a doubt was Tommy Lazzaro, which is a sentence I have to admit I didn’t think I’d be writing this season.

The second-string quarterback seems to be extremely comfortable in his role as a subpackage role player, and it is a package which has worked to shrewd efficiency in recent weeks.

Whenever CMU needed a conversion on a third-and-short or near the goal line, Lazzaro was right there to make the read and get Central to where it needed to go. It was Lazzaro’s late-game decision-making, in fact, which allowed CMU to remain close, as he rightly read the offense on the final two drives of the game in the redzone and strolled in for two rushing touchdowns to put the Chippewas in the lead.

He was involved in at least four of six touchdowns scored by CMU, and has served as a spark plug for the offense in 2019, giving CMU a read option look that’s different from the read option pass the offense normally ran by starting QB Quinten Dormady. Lazzaro has 22 carries for 76 yards and four touchdowns after Week 12’s action in eight games since McElwain adopted the package.

The Ball State defense seemed to be caught off-guard with the increased usage of the package in the second half and had difficulty defending it, especially in short-yardage situations.

To say Lazzaro is the hero of this game is cetainly not to discount the efforts of Jonathan Ward, who rushed for a career-high four touchdowns on 105 yards and 24 carries. Ward had difficulty breaking off big runs against a stout Cardinal defense early, but still ultimately worked his way to four goal-line touchdowns to single-handedly keep the Chippewas in contention as the BSU offense flew and Dormady struggled to get the offense moving where it mattered.

Ward was never tackled for a loss in the game, and had a career day on the ground to help the Chips compete. He was deadly with Lazzaro too, as the read option resulted in a touchdown every time the pair were in the backfield.

Credit to Jim McElwain and staff for finding a way to incorporate Lazzaro’s effectiveness at running the read option into the offense and making it work without messing up CMU’s overall offensive rhythm.

The CMU defense buckled down when it mattered

For the first 46 minutes of the contest, the Chippewa defense had been getting absolutely gashed.

A lot of the X-Factors I had pointed out in the preview had really gotten to the defense, as dual-threat back Walter Fletcher kept drives alive with his feet and hands, while the passing offense caught the secondary in coverage lulls and took advantage, most notably on a 64-yard touchdown to Justin Hall on a simple slant route.

They had allowed 41 points and 442 yards up to the 14:48 point of the fourth quarter and were put on the defensive several times in the game, with two fumbles and an interception forcing them into bad positions to begin with. Even with the score at 41-31 Ball State, one couldn’t feel comfortable with the defense winning the game for Central.

It turned out this was when the defense started to play at their best, putting CMU in a position to win the game on the offensive end.

The Chippewas started the fourth quarter by forcing a punt on third-and-12, giving the offense the benefit of a 29-yard punt on special teams, and followed that up with a five-play, 19 yard drive lasting just 2:19. The defense bent, but didn’t break on an eight-play, 34-yard drive at the 8:37 mark, allowing only one 18-yard pass and a long run of six yards before forcing a field goal from 33 yards out to allow their only three points of the quarter.

Their best performance came on Ball State’s final drive, as the Cardinals tried to pass their way to victory, with Troy Brown sniffing out a screen to Walter Fletcher on first down, Kyron McKinnie-Harper breaking up a pass to Antwan Davis and the pass rush forcing a bad incompletion towards Riley Miller before Try Brown ultimately caught an errant pass for the game-sealing interception.

It was an extremely encouraging performance from a defense which most people probably counted out as the fourth quarter started. Giving up ony 33 yards of offense in a day where the defense averaged 147 yards per quarter prior is a testament to the unit’s tenacity, as they helped put the offense in great field position to make the comeback possible, even despite struggling to make havoc plays (no turnovers and only one sack on the day.)

The Ball State offense is still extremely efficient, even in the loss

The Ball State offense was about as balanced as you could possibly want from a team.

They amassed 268 yards through the air and 231 yards on the ground, which is a fantastic ratio to have, and scored five touchdowns on the day, with three through the air and two on the ground (though one of those rushing touchdowns was technically a screen pass to offensive lineman Danny Pinter.)

The Cardinals also kicked for field goals as many times as they punted on the day, which is another indication of efficiency. The Cards were finding points any which way they could and certainly took advantage of CMU’s mistakes in the early going by converting on points off turnovers, picking up 17 points in that statistic.

The Cards actually had both running backs go over 100 yards on the day, with Walter Fletcher, the D-II transfer from Edinboro (PA), racking up 115 yards and Caleb Huntley gaining 106 yards and a touchdown. Fletcher also contributed in the receiving game, with a 39-yard reception.

Justin Hall also had himself a day, catching two touchdowns on four receptions, while Riley Miller took advantage of a matchup to score on a touchdown.

The frustration for Ball State fans in this game was the playcalling in the late going, as they played to chew down the clock and CMU seemed to be keyed in on it. They found themselves forced into obvious passing downs in all their fourth-quarter drives and simply could not convert when necessary. If they get even one of those complete, the field goal they scored could have been a touchdownn to ice the game. Perhaps another drive could have generated points or at the very least, they could have prevented CMU from getting possession or give them a bad clock.

Instead, they kept their timeouts for the final drive with less than a minute left and never got the ball back. It’s a game many fans will point to if BSU falls out of bowl eligibility.

The BSU defense had a complete meltdown in the second half

It’s not terribly often you blow up a 41-24 lead to an opponent, but by gum, the Ball State found a way to do just that on Saturday.

It was accomplished mostly through a decided lack of discipline via penalties, but it was also in lax play going down the stretch. The offense was accomplishing what they needed to do, and the defense in the first half had done everything required of it. They forced two fumbles and an intercpetion to gift BSU 17 points they maybe otherwise might not have gotten.

But there was a definite resting of laurels which ensued late in the game that doomed the Cardinals.

It started at the 2:26 mark of the third quarter, when offsetting penalties were nullified by an egregious Antonio Phillips targetting penalty which resulted in a first down and 15 yards (as well as his ejection) and following that up with a defensive pass interference call which wiped out an amazing Tyler Potts interception to grant CMU another free set of downs and 15 yards. In two plays and approximatey 10 seconds, CMU had moved from teir own 27 to the Ball State 28, literally flipping the field. CMU would score four plays later on a Ward rush from the two-yard line to start the 24-3 rally.

On the next CMU offensive drive, the Cardinal defense was again caught sleeping, with a six-yard rush on first down, and a Kalil Pimpleton drop on what would have been a big gainer on second down. Dormady was intecepted by Tyler Potts again, but the interception came off the board again after a (controversial) defensive pass interfernce nullified another turnover. Instead of letting it be, linebacker Jacob White said a magic word and granted CMU nine additional yards (half the distance to the goal) on top of the 15 yards from the DPI.

CMU scored two plays later in just 1:38 of possession on a Tommy Lazzaro touchdown that brought the game within one score. The writing was on the wall from there, as Ball State allowed a 10-play, 72 yard drive which took over 4:00 off the clock to ultimately win the game on their final relevant possession.

Ball State was absolutely not ready for the CMU gameplan in the second half, and ultimately allowed the Chippewas to get back into the game by doing what they do best: running the ball. They also didn’t get the pressure they needed on Dormady down the stretch, as he converted big passes time and time again to put CMU in favorable position to win (as evidenced by his 27-of-38, 356 yard box score.) Dormady even had a five-yard run to set up the game-winning rush by Lazzaro and could have ran in himself on a previous play in the drive.

The BSU defense allowed 495 yards of offense in the game, and over 307 yards of offense in the second half alone. It was an embarassing performance after a strong first half where the Cardinals had ran a perfect gameplan on the defensive side of the ball.

So what does this mean for the postseason?

With the win, CMU remains in contention for the MAC West divisional title should WMU lose to NIU and the Chips win their remaining game against Toledo. They also got a crucial seventh victory, guaranteeing themselves a bowl game. Where that will be is yet to be determined, as it’s likely three weeks until all that is resolved. But it’s a huge turnaround, engineered by new coach Jim McElwain and his staff that cannot be denied. Fans should be delighted at how CMU has turned the corner.

Ball State, meanwhile, will have to win out to have a chance at a bowl game, as six wins could see them getting pushed out if too many teams qualify and a losing conference record would do them no favors with selection committees. They’re still technically in the MAC West divisional race as well, but a lot of things would have to fall their way, even if they win out on their schedule. It’s a long way from being determined for the Cardinals, and a win on Saturday would have been extremely helpful.