It simply cannot be overstated how important of a game this Black Friday tilt between the Central Michigan Chippewas (7-4, 5-2 MAC) and the Toledo Rockets (6-5, 3-4 MAC) is, not just for the MAC championship game, but also for the MAC bowl picture as a whole.
A win against Toledo gives CMU, who previously had an 8.1 percent chance to win the MAC West division prior to the Western Michigan/Northern Illinois game, the outright division title and a chance for glory on Dec. 7 in Detroit, Michigan. It would also be the first time since 2009 that the Chippewas represented the West in the title game. That team, lead by Dan LeFevour and Antonio Brown, went on to win the MAC and eventually get ranked in the AP Top 25 at the end of the season after taking home an electric victory in the GMAC Bowl vs. Troy.
For Toledo, a win against Central Michigan bails out Western Michigan, who lost to NIU on Tuesday, and gives the Broncos an opportunity to compete for the MAC title for the first time since the Cotton Bowl run back in 2016 as the MAC West representative. It would also ensure a guaranteed selection to a primary bowl game for the Rockets, who would have seven wins if they emerge victorious from the game. With Buffalo and Eastern Michigan fighting for a seventh win in their respective games, and Kent State fighting for a sixth win to attain bowl eligibility, it leaves a narrow margin of error for the Rockets if they want to keep their postseason hopes alive.
This is a game which absolutely demands your attention if you’re a true fan of #MACtion.
When CMU has the ball
CMU has simply been lights out at home, and draw a favorable matchup by ending the season in the friendly confines of Kelly/Shorts Stadium. The Chippewas are 5-0 at home in 2019, scoring an average of 43 points per game, with an average winning margin of 25.2 points per game. They’re a team that scores fast, and moves at will; at home, they average 550 yards per game (7.4 yards per play) and five touchdowns.
Starting quarterback Quinten Dormady is coming off a game where he set a career-high in passing yards, finishing the game against Ball State 27-of-38 passing for 356 yards and one interception. He didn’t get a touchdown, but he still found a way to be effective for the Chippewas, setting them up in great position for success several times with crisp passing and diagnosing of defenses.
This isn’t to say Dormady is perfect, necessarily. He has a penchant for making risky throws, which defenses have made him pay for in the past, and often panics in the pocket when prssure comes around.
But for what the Chips operate, he’s been a perfect leader in executing the offense, establishing a rapport with the receivers which force defenses to respect him.
The Chippewas won’t hesitate to use backup QB Tommy Lazzaro either; the read-option specialist scored two touchdowns to tie (and eventually win) the game a week and a half ago vs Ball State, and it’s a look CMU breaks out when they believe they have an advantage on short-yardage plays to keep the defense on its feet.
CMU also has one of the more prolific rushing offenses in the country, with senior Jonathan Ward and sophomore Kobe Lewis splitting the starter carries. Per game, the Chippewas average 187 yards per game and three touchdowns on 37 carries. Ward and Lewis have combined for 1,790 yards and 23 touchdowns on 299 carries, and it’s often difficult for defenses to parse out who will get the majority of the load on a given day. In the last game, it was Ward, who exploded for 105 yards and four touchdowns. Lewis struggled against Ball State, but with four 100-yard rushing games as a split back, he cannot be underestimated.
On the receiving end, CMU sports two of the more dangerous receivers in the MAC in sophomore Kalil Pimpleton (69 receptions, 738 yards and six touchdowns) and senior JaCorey Sullivan (42 rec., 629 yards and three touchdowns,) who are first and fifth in the MAC in receiving yards, respectively.
Sullivan has been the go-to for a big play receiver, and has certainly filled that role well, with an average reception of 15 yards. He has especially exploded in the last month, reeling in not less than five receptions and 88 yards in four games, including two straight 100-yard performances.
Pimpleton, a former Virginia Tech Hokie, has been the biggest security blanket regardless of quarterback, and sets up much of what the offense runs out of the slot position, often going in motion for jet sweeps or reverses. He’s a player with special top-end speed and an excellent vision in the open field, and can even throw a pass or two as well, so teams will certainly have to look out for anything tricky when he’s sent across the line. He has been trading with WMU’s Skyy Moore for the lead in receiving yards all season, and can extend on his lead if CMU can win on Friday.
Another option to look out for is tight end Tony Poljan, who at six-foot-seven, 255 lbs., is a great intermediate route runner who has found plenty of success on wheel routes. He’s at 28 receptions for 428 yards and three touchdowns.
The Toledo defense will have to key in on the run if they want any chance at an upset victory in Mt. Pleasant. That could be a tall task, as Toledo sports a run defense which allows an average of 211.1 yards per game and 2.4 touchdowns. With a multiple defense, Toledo places emphasis on speed and versatile players who can play in different situation.
That’s most evident in how they treat sophomore Saeed Holt, a safety who’s been brought down as a SAM linebacker in 2019. He’s performed admirably at the position, picking up 72 total tackles, 10 tackles-for-loss and 3.5 sacks on the season so far. Joining him in the box are senior Jordan Fisher (84 tackles, 5.5 tackles-for-loss, one interception), who first joined Toledo as a tight end, and senior Dedarrello Blue (69 tackles, 7.5 tackles-for-loss), another safety.
The defensive line shifts between three-and-four-man fronts, employing senior Nate Childress (24 total tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss and one sack) as a nose tackle, while freshman Devan Rogers (29 tackles, 1.5 tackles-for-loss and one sack) and junior David Hood (13 tackles) rotate at defensive tackle. On the ends are the sophomore duo of Jamal Hines (51 tackles, 8.5 tackles-for-loss, one sack, one fumble recovery) and Nate Givan (37 tackles, 3.5 tackles-for-loss, two sacks.)
The Rockets have been very stout in pass coverge, averaging 257.6 yards per game and 1.5 touchdowns per game this season, with 11 forced turnovers in 11 games (five fumbles, six interceptions).
In terms of personnel, the secondary might just be Toledo’s best strength.
Junior strong safety Tycen Anderson is second on the team in tackles (75 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, five passes defended) and has been an effective hybrid safety, versatile in both run support and pass coverage. Senior free safety Kahlil Robinson (43 tackles, one tackle-for-loss) has half of Toledo’s six interceptions on the season, giving support to the corners on double-team coverage.
Junior cornerback Samuel Womack (55 tackles, two interceptions, 10 passes defended) and freshman Chris McDonald (33 tackles, one tackles-for-loss, 15 passes defended) ar two of the better defensive backs in the MAC, and excel in one-on-one coverage. They’ll face the MAC’s best receiving corps for their final assignment, and that battle could well determine the postseason fates of both squads.
When Toledo has the ball
The Toledo offense finds itself in a pretty bad space, as they’re going to be down two quarterbacks, with the starter for the upcoming game up in the air. Mitchell Guadagni and Eli Peters are both down with unspecified injuries and doubtful to play on Friday, leaving the starting job up to either redshirt freshman Carter Bradley or true freshman Cross Wilkerson.
Bradley does have a handful of relief appearances to point to in 2019, completing 31-of-77 passes for 381 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in five games of action. He’s the likely favorite to start, as there’s only Wilkerson and fellow true freshman Dequan Finn behind him.
Thankfully for Toledo, they have a very solid running game and an offensive line which has helped the Rockets average 238 yards per game in 2019. Sophomore Bryant Roback is one of the league’s best rushers, picking up 1,165 yards and 11 touchdowns on 182 carries, but he’s been hobbled recently by a recurring ankle injury. Koback has only eclipsed 100 yards once in the last six games (32 carries for 259 yards vs. EMU [OT] on Oct. 26), but he’s still a big running threat, even with injury, and part of that dip has been a result of splitting more of the lead with backup Shakif Seymour.
Seymour, a true power back, has 728 yards and five touchdowns on 149 carries as a change-of-pace back, while Ronnie Jones (34 carries, 233 yards, four touchdowns) has been a welcome relief back who offers a bit of a speed option.
In terms of receivers, the Rockets boast the best big play receiver in the MAC in junior Bryce Mitchell (30 rec., 616 yards, four touchdowns), who averages 20.5 yards per reception on the season. They also have other steady pieces in Danzel McKinley-Lewis (31 rec., 577 yards, one touchdown) and Desmond Phillips (32 rec., 343 yards, two touchdowns.) They’ve been able to produce despite shaky quarterback play, which is a testament to the offense for finding ways to deliver the ball to their contributors.
As can be seen in the listed numbers, Toledo does a great job in spreading the ball around, with their top three receivers within one reception of each other. All three bring a different wrinkle to the offense, with Mitchell as the burner, McKinley-Lewis as a run-after-catch guy and Phillips as a security blanket. They’ll certainly test a Central secondary who will be down a key piece in Darius Bracy, who is doubtful with an injury. (More on theat in a second.)
The Chippewas are one of the better defenses in the country, ranking 47th overall with 367.6 yards per game on average, including an absolutely stingy 123.5 yards per game (which plummets to an incredible 62.4 YPG when at home.)
The defense typically aligns in a 4-3 look, with senior Sean Adesanya (30 tackles, 14.5 tackles-for-loss, 7.5 sacks) and freshman LaQuan Johnson (24 tackles, 10 tackles-for-loss, five sacks) setting the edge. Johnson, at six-foot-three, 272 lbs., recently made the move from tackle to end, where his speed rush abilities fit the scheme decidedly better. Replacing him on the inside is junior Robi Stuart (22 tackles, 5.5 tackles-for-loss and two sacks), who has steadily worked his way up the depth charts as the season has progressed. He starts alongside true freshman Jacques Bristol (18 tackles, four tackles-for-loss, 2.5 sacks), and the two rotate with recent Texas A&M transfer Mohammed Diallo (six-foot-four, 330 lbs.) and true freshman Tico Brown (six-foot-two, 291 lbs.)
Troy Brown, who converted from safety this past offseason, is the leader of the defense at his outside linebacker position. He leads CMU in total tackles (72) and interceptions (3) and is second in tackles-for-loss (14.) Michael Oliver (65 tackles, six tackles-for-loss, forced fumble, recovery) mans the middle of the defense, while George Douglas gets his second start at outside linebacker after Andrew Ward’s retirement due to injury.
The secondary is young, and could be missing one of its more veteran pieces in sophomore corner Darius Bracy (23 tackles, three passes defensed.) He’s doubtful with injury, leaving CMU to push two true freshman at corner in Kyron McKinnie-Harper (27 tackles, 1.5 tackles-for-loss, eight passes defensed) and Montrae Braswell (25 tackles, one interception, five passes defensed.)
That puts a decent load on the saftey pair of senior Da’Quaun Jamison (51 tackles, three tackles-for-loss, one sack, two interceptions, four passes defensed) who is excellent in pass coverage, and Devonni Reed (62 tackles, two tackles-for-loss), whose specialty is run support.
Toledo will look to attack a vulnerable secondary early and often to test the young corners on the outside and see what they can get away with in an effort to get an edge. The matchup will be key, as CMU has 10 interceptions on the season and is one of the better turnover-causing defenses in the MAC.
- Where/When: Friday. Nov. 29, 2019 at Kelly/Shorts Stadium in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan.
- Weather: Partly cloudy, with a light breeze and temperature at 39 degrees, per Weather.com. Chance of precipitation: 10 percent.
- TV/streaming: The game is being broadcast nationally on ESPNU. Check your local listings or with your cable provider for channel availability. The game is also viewable on the ESPN App, which needs a valid cable subscription.
- Odds: Central Michigan is an 11-point home favorite, with the over/under at 64.5, per OddsShark.
Given my attachment to CMU and the stakes this game hold, I find it hard to not just go for the hard sell “CMU wins” prediction. But I’ll do my best to keep things professional.
What I will say is this: the game could well be decided early in the proceedings. CMU gets off to fast starts at home, and their strengths on offense is where Toledo is weak on defense. Toledo has also struggled in recent weeks with offensive playcalling, specifically at the end of halves, and it has cost them significantly. With a third-string quarterback likely leading the way, and workhorse back Bryant Koback hobbled, it could be difficult for them to get past a ferocious rushing defense predicated on an aggressive front.
Toledo will have to force three-and-outs to start the game and hold onto the ball on offense in order to place Central in a corner and have a chance to win. CMU has shown lapses in pass coverage in the past, especially in the redzone, and are prone to teams with shifty running backs; if Toledo can find the pressure points, they’ll certainly have a chance to remain competitive. If they allow Central to put the foot on the gas at any point, however, they could find it hard to claw their way back in.