It’ll be a clear and sunny 50-degree afternoon when the Central Michigan Chippewas (8-5, 6-3 MAC) and the San Diego State Aztecs (9-3, 5-3 Mountain West) meet up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to partake in the 2019 New Mexico Bowl, where the famous painted clay pot trophy will be on the line.
This match between the Chips and Aztecs promises to be a classic case of “unstoppable force meets immovable object,” as CMU is one of the most efficient offenses in the country, while SDSU packs an elite defense.
On the line for the Chippewas is a chance at a trophy and a happy ending to an improbable season after going 1-11 in the 2018 campaign. CMU has missed out on two rivalry trophies and the MAC Championship trophy so far in 2019, so they’ll be more than ready to try to bring one home. The last time CMU won a bowl game was in the 2012 Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl against FBS newbies Western Kentucky.
For the Aztecs, a win against CMU would give them 10 on the season, and would wrap up an undefeated out-of-conference slate, incuding wins over UCLA, BYU and an eighth-ranked Weber State (FCS.) A win in New Mexico would give SDSU its fourth 10-win record in the last five seasons in their 10th-straight bowl game appearance.
When CMU has the ball
Central hit a bump in the road against Miami on the offensive side in the MAC Championship Game, limited to just 21 points and 355 yards in a loss to the Miami RedHawks.
What really defined the game was the struggles on the ground, an uncharacteristic occurance for the Chippewas. Jonathan Ward (10 carries for 26 yards) and Kobe Lewis (seven carries for 24 yards) combined for 50 yards of offense, just two more yards than backup QB Tommy Lazzaro on his own in the short-yardage package. It was a startling performance for CMU, even knowing the injuries the line faced heading in.
Needless to say, CMU will be re-evaluating what worked and what didn’t, and will make their adjustments.
CMU operates at its best in tempo and when it can get blocks held up in the running game; Ward and Lewis are at or near the 1,000-yard mark on the season and have shown great burst and acceleration when they’re able to find a gap. They’re also unafraid to run a read-option package with backup QB Tommy Lazzaro, who has ran for six touchdowns over the last five games. CMU is one of the better running teams in the country, ranking 40th in the NCAA with 2,427 yards and 35 rushing touchdowns in 13 games.
The running game opens opportunity for timing passes, with Tony Poljan and Kalil PImpleton often targeted, and the deep pass, with Tyrone Scott and JaCorey Sullivan the two favorites to haul in those receptions. Pimpleton (79 rec., 823 yards, six touchdowns) and Sullivan (54 rec., 776 yards, three touchdowns) posted numbers which were good enough to get them first-team All-MAC honors, making them a dangerous one-two punch.
Coach Jim McElwain will take plenty of high-risk shots to get the score up to where the defense can hold water, and it’s a strategy which could well determine the course of the game, especially with the defense they’ll be facing.
The San Diego State defense has given up 20 points or more just twice this season, going 1-1 in those games (loss to Utah State, win vs. Wyoming) while averaging just 12.83 points per game allowed in 2019.
The unique 5-3-3 defense, besides giving Central a look they haven’t seen up to this point, is a very speedy unit, which specializes in neutralizing the run by mixing in exotic blitzes and creating pressure with speed rushers on the edges.
The Aztecs give multiple defensive looks by mixing in several hybrid players (called Field Warrior, Boundary Warrior and Aztec) at the safety and linebacker spots to bring out unique looks. It’s something they’ve used with great efficiency; the Aztecs are second in the country in stopping the run (72.3 yards per game on average), with only seven rushing scores allowed in 12 games this season, and 40th in the pass game (216.3 yards per game on average) with an astounding 10 touchdowns against.
The secondary might be the toughest unit of the bunch, with All-American cornerback Luq Barcoo leading the secondary. Barcoo has shown himself to be one of the best cover corners in college football this season, as the JUCO product has 51 tackles, five tackles-for-loss, eight interceptions and 16 passes defensed on the season. Battery mate Darren Hall has made the SDSU secondary a no-fly zone in his own respect, with 41 tackles and 16 passes defensed on the year.
LInebacker Kyahva Tezino leads the team in total tackles (96), quarterback hits (21) and fored fumbles (2 [tied]) in the center of the defense, while Keshawk Banks (41 total tackles, 13.5 tackles-for-loss, 4.5 sacks) leads the team in tackles-for-loss and is second in sacks on the line. Myles Cheatham (39 tackles, five sacks, 12 quarterback hits) is perhaps the best pass rusher amongst the defensive line.
When SDSU has the ball
SDSU has the reputation for being a bit of a running bit mill throughout its history.
That’s not a particular surprise when you consider the caliber of players who have gone through the program, incuding Rashaad Penny, Donnell Pumphrey and Marshall Faulk. It’s been pretty much a guarantee that any SDSU RB in recent years has threatened to break some sort of school or NCAA record for most career rushing yards.
This year has been a bit different for the Aztecs, as they’ve attempted to install more pistol and spread concepts to try and balance out the offense. There are five rushers (including QB Ryan Agnew) with more than 216 yards on the season, as they’ve gone with more of a rotational look this season. Juwan Washington has been the leader of the carousel, with 500 yards on 150 attempts and two touchdowns. Chance Bell (88 carries, 373 yards, two touchdowns), Chase Jasmin (69 carries, 315 yards, three touchdowns) and Jordan Byrd (61 carries, 216 yards, two touchdowns) have also contributed to the rushing attack, which has struggled to get going as the passing game has been more gradually incorporated.
That said, the offense has done just enough to get the job done, holding onto the ball for an average of 33:36 per game, and scoring 19 points per game (6.27 points better than they give up to opponents.) They’re doing so thanks in part to two aspects of their offense: placekicker Matt Ariaza (20-of-24 field goals, including 6-of-9 from 40-49 yards out) and a passing offense which can move the ball down the middle of the field.
Ryan Agnew (216-of-340 for 2,175 yards, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions) leads a passing offense which generates about 197.7 yards per game when he’s on the field. The backup QB, Carson Baker, has also proven capable in his one start (19-of-24 for 172 yards and a touchdown) this season.
The receiving corps doesn’t have numbers to write home about, but it works for establishing the type of offense they hope to run. Their leading receiver, Kobe Lewis, is far and away the favorite receiver, with 57 receptions, 673 yards and four of the team’s 12 passing touchdowns. Their next leading receiver, Jesse Matthews, has 45 receptions for 522 yards and has shown himself to be a reliable possession receiver. Tight end Daniel Bellinger (14 rec., 190 yards, three touchdowns) is next on the receiving board, providing an outlet on passing plays, and is one of six different players with 100+ receiving yards.
CMU will have to play that receiving corps without their two best cover corners, as Darius Bracy and Kyron McKinnie-Harper are both out with injury. That leaves Montrae Braswell, Norman Anderson and Brandon Brown to pick up the slack, as the normally rotational pieces will get a lot of work. They’ll still have the safety duo of Devonni Reed and Da’Quaun Jamison behind them to help lead a passing defense which gave up an average of 236.6 yards per game and 22 touchdowns in 2019.
The front seven is one of the best in the FBS in run stuff percentage, and boasts a Top 25 rushing defense (115.1 yards per game on average, 20th in the country) to boot, and that’s thanks to an aggressive 4-3 front which exerts pressure at the line to cause havoc plays.
Defensive ends Sean Adesanya (32 tackles, 15.5 tackles-for-loss), LaQuan Johnson (32 tackles, 13 tackles-for-loss) and linebacker Troy Brown (85 tackles, 16 tackles-for-loss) all have 10+ tackles for loss and also combine for 14 sacks, helping keep opposing backs on their toes in both run plays and pass protection. The middle of the line is stout as well, with Jacques Bristol (21 tackles, seven tackles-for-loss, four sacks), Robi Stuart (28 tackles, 8.5 tackles-for-loss and three sacks) leading the way.
The linebacking corps will be a little thin coming into this game, with George Douglas in for the retired Andrew Ward (neck injury) and Cory Gildersleeve expected to start in place of Troy Brown (targeting suspension) for the first half of the game, but Michael Oliver (82 tackles, eight tackles-for-loss, one intecpetion) should help guide a young middle of the defense until Brown (who is excellent in pass coverage with three interceptions and two passes defensed) can come back in.
- Where/When: Dreamscape Stadium on the campus of the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque, on Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019 at 2:30 p.m. EST (12:30 p.m. MST.)
- Weather: 50 degrees and sunny, with a light breeze at kickoff, per Weather.com.
- TV/streaming: The game will be nationally televised on ESPN2, and is available on the ESON App with a valid cable subscription.
- Radio: The game will be broadcast on three different streams. A CMU-centric broadcast can be found here, while an SDSU-centric broadcast can be found here. ESPN Radio will have a broadcast as well, which can be found on ESPNRadio.com, or on the ESPN App under the “audio home” tab.
- Odds: San Diego State is a 3.5-point favorite, with an over/under of 40.5, per OddsShark.com.