It was a wet and soggy day in Mt. Pleasant on Saturday afternoon, as the Central Michigan Chippewas (6-4, 4-2 MAC) returned home after a two-week road trip to face the Northern Illinois Huskies (3-6, 2-3 MAC) in a MAC West game which could affect the divison standings as the season winds down.
It was ultimately a day defined by Central Michigan’s high-flying offense, as NIU fell behind quickly with no hope of recorse as the weather worsened.
Now, with CMU sitting in the catbird seat in the MAC West (pending the result of Tuesday’s Ball State/WMU game), and NIU surely in the basement of the division, it sets up an intriguing picture for the rest of the weeknight slate.
So what exactly did we learn about both teams?
After a bad week in Buffalo, the CMU offense came out with a point to prove
CMU ran into a brick wall against the Bulls last week, plain and simple. Buffalo prides itself on having one of the best defenses in the country, and showed it once again against Eastern Michigan on Saturday. They’re for real.
What does that mean for CMU, then?
It just means last week was not indicative of CMU as a team, which is an encoraging sign. The CMU offense certainly came out driving on all cylinders, posting 38 points in the first half, including 21 points in the first quarter alone.
Quinten Dormady was especially on-point, finishing 18-of-24 for 288 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions. I was very harsh on his recent performance last week, and it seems he improved in most every area I picked out. There were only two really interceptable passes on the day, and one of those turned into an SportsCenter Top 10-worthy catch by Kalil Pimpleton after it bounced off of two NIU defenders.
Dormady also spread the ball around, rather than focus on one passcatcher. Kalil Pimpleton (50 yards, one touchdown) and JaCorey Sullivan (88 yards) both notched five receptions on the day, while Tyrone Scott (53 yards, one touchdown) and Tony Poljan (79 yards, one touchdown) both brought in two receptions to help pace the offense.
“We knew we were going to have to throw it this week, with them loading the box up, and overall, we executed it really well,” Dormady said in post-game remarks. “It makes it a lot easier on me when I can throw a five-yard hitch and [the receivers] can turn it into 10 or 12, and eventually break one.”
The ground game was key to Central’s success, as both Jonathan Ward (20 rushes, 138 yards with none lost, one touchdown) and Kobe Lewis (17 yards, 143 yards, one touchdown) both eclipsed the 100-yard mark once again. Tommy Lazzaro still got shine as well in the read option package, finishing with seven rushing attempts for 27 yards and a touchdown.
Perhaps the biggest indicator of success, as Dormady alluded to post-game, was not turning the ball over. CMU turned the ball over five times in their loss to Buffalo last week, so walking away with zero while the defense caused four (more on that in a moment) helped CMU immensely.
If there’s one concern to take away on offense, it’s Ryan Tice’s inability to convert field goals.
Tice, who proved to be a steady presence for a failing CMU team in 2018, had another questionable outing on Saturday. He converted 2-of-5 attempts, making his first and last attempts from 32 yards and 31 yards out, respectively. Sandwiched inbetween the makes were three failed attempts in the third quarter from 42, 43 and 29 yards.
Whether it’s a matter of the connection between the long-snapping team or a case of the yelps hasn’t really made itself apparent, though it is worth noting all three misses were towards the Champions Center side of the stadium. It will be a situation to monitor moving forward.
The CMU defense keyed in on NIU’s tendencies and took advantage of them
CMU caused four turnovers on the day in total on defense, with three interceptions of Ross Bowers on back-to-back-to-back possessions in the third quarter and a fumble by Jordan Nettles.
It fit right into the type of defense Robb Akey has been preaching about playing all season, as the Chippewas put pressure on the quarterback and prevented NIU from getting anything going on the ground. CMU picked up eight tackles-for-loss between five players, with LaQuan Johnson collecting three of those TFL’s, both of CMU’s sacks and two of CMU’s three forced fumbles.
CMU head coach Jim McElwain said (and linebacker Michael Oliver confirmed) the focus was on “defense first” in preparations for the game this week. That’s been a key for CMU at home in Kelly/Shorts, as they’ve allowed an average of 62.4 yards per game on the ground at home (comapred to 163 on the road.) In fact, NIU didn’t get into the black for rushing yards until deep into the fourth quarter; they were at an astronomically bad -23 rushing yards at the half, finishing with 22 overall.
The pass defense was also extremely aggressive, picking up seven pass break-ups between four players and three interceptions by three different players, including safety Gage Kreski, linebacker Michael Oliver and cornerback Montrae Braswell. With NIU forced to abandon the run early, the Chippewas limited the Huskies to just 229 yards on the day, with one passing touchdown on a redzone fade route to Spencer Tears from the arm of Bowers.
Head coach Jim McElwain attributed CMU’s success on defense to taking away a part of NIU’s offense which they relied upon a lot: the inside seam.
“It’s one of the things that is their bread-and-butter,” McElwain said in post-game remarks. “I thought our defense did a great job coming out. Obviously, a couple of those interceptions that happened after half were in that same area so we did a good job of getting it corrected.”
For the game, CMU gave up only 241 total yards on the day, compared to CMU picking up 615 yards. The turnovers caused by the defense generated 10 points, but could have been a lot more had some of Tice’s field goals rang true.
If they can find a way to turn their undefeated home successes into results on the road (1-4 record), CMU could well find itself in the hunt for a trip to nearby Detroit.
NIU still has an identity crisis on offense
It wasn’t exactly clear what the plan was for the Huskies to start the game.
Marcus Childers earned the start after a decent relief appearance in last week’s win over the Akron Zips. It didn’t go terribly well for the former MAC Offensive Player of the Year, as he finished with 27 total yards on eight touches (one eight-yard completion in two pass attempts.)
He got the hook after two straight three-and-outs, getting replaced by Ross Bowers after NIU fell behind 14-0 early. Bowers ripped off three straight 10+ yard completions to get NIU to the CMU side of the field before the team settled for a field goal by John Richardson from 33 yards out. That proved to be a pivotal possession, as CMU’s next possession resulted in a touchdown, taking it from a two-score game to a three-score game.
With CMU effectively keyed in on the run game early, NIU tried to employ screen passes and timing routes in order to get space and retain possession, and ultimately, that didn’t prove to work either.
Simply put, NIU seemed to have no real plan of attack for the CMU defense.
The problem seems to be a schematic one, as the staff seems to be running two different kinds of attack depending on who is taking snaps under center.
Under Childers, the offense seemed to focus on running the ball on read option looks. With Bowers, the plan was to air it out and get the ball to playmakers using pro-style conventions. Neither plan seemed to work here, and it’s a struggle NIU has showed all season on the offensive side of the ball.
NIU is not accustomed to struggle, especially in the last decade. First-year coach Thomas Hammock will have to make up his mind on what he wants to run and whether or not he has the personnel to run it, especially with the season all but done with one more loss.
If he can figure out a scheme to go with, there could still be hope for 2019. But largely, at least on the offensive side, they’re looking at 2020.
The Huskies defense had no gas left
At the beginning of the season, the Huskies boasted one of the best returning defenses in the MAC, even with the loss of sackmaster Sutton Smith to the NFL Draft. It was a unit which was expected to help keep NIU competitive, even despite the brutal out-of-conference schedule and the transition year between Rod Carey and Thomas Hammock.
That certainly isn’t the case now, as the NIU defense is missing Antonio Jones-Davis, Kyle Pugh and Antwain Walker to season-ending injuries, forcing NIU to start walk-ons Vinnie Labus and Nick Rattin at the linebacker position.
The NIU defense was boat-raced in the first half, giving up 38 points and 400 yards by halftime. They allowed CMU to convert on 5-of-7 third-down converstion attempts in the first half (8-of-15 overall) and gave up 34:01 of possession for the game, including 16:57 of the first half. CMU saw the redzone nine times, scoring in seven trips.
Granted, they saw the field a lot due to the offense’s inability to move the ball early, but those are still paltry numbers, especially when you factor in their inability to create a turnover. They had two good opportunities to do so in the first half, with Jordan Cole dropping an interception and Kalil Pimpleton ripping another sure-fire interception out of two defenders’ hands, but came away with none.
So by the time the NIU offense turned the ball over on four straight possessions, the defense’s fate was all but sealed, as they gave up their most points in a game since 2016.
Looking at the overall bowl picture for both CMU and NIU
CMU has secured a bowl berth with two games left to go, becoming the first MAC team to do so this season. (It’s been a hell of a year.) They can secure a guaranteed chance at a bowl game with a win on the road against Ball State or at home against Toledo on Black Friday. Depending on how those games go, CMU could also find itself representing the MAC West for the first time since 2009 in the MAC Championship Game in Detroit, Michigan.
If they end up at 6-6 or 7-5, CMU will have to wait out the rest of the table to shake out before finding their destination. The Bahamas could be back in the mix after a four-year hiatus, though that likely wouldn’t be ideal. CMU’s last appearance was in the Idaho Potato Bowl, so that can also be conuted out. This leaves Boca Raton as a very attractive primary option.
With a 7-6 or 8-5 record, the Chippewas would have a choice of the top bowl games the MAC has a connection with. History usually dictates the MAC champions and runners up play in the Alabama-based bowls in Montgomery (Camellia) and Mobile.
For NIU, they’ll have to get the best of old foes Toledo and WMU in order to even be considered for a bowl game at 6-6. They faced a tough out-of-conference schedule, so they could well get the benefit of the doubt from selection committees. If they do end up 6-6, Boca Raton would be out of the picture (as they have been in it recently.) Mobile and Camellia would be as well. They’d likely have to cross their fingers for a secondary tie-in to come through.