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2019 MAC Football Championship Game Preview: Central Michigan Chippewas

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From 1-11 in 2018, to 8-4 and MAC West Division winners, CMU looks to cap off an unexpected season with a trophy.

James H. Jimenez

The Central Michigan Chippewas (8-4, 6-2 MAC) are a year removed from ending a season with a program-worst 1-11 record, which saw them lose every conference game, and hold no wins against FBS competition.

Fast-forward to today, and the very same team that struggled to beat Maine (who played a backup QB for most of the game) by a score of 17-5 at home, now finds themselves at Ford Field for the first time since 2009, fighting for a chance at MAC Championship glory.

How did the Chippewas get here?


The journey

The non-conference slate was a bit of a roller coaster for CMU in 2019. Schedule restrictions forced the Chippewas into some strange situations in the early going, with reprieve in the way of a BYE not coming until Week 11 of the season.

That meant if CMU was going to be competitive, they had to get wins early, putting good pressure on the team from the onset.

Central started the slate with a Thursday night opener against FCS member UAlbany, a game which was delayed for over two hours due to weather. The Chips weren’t perfect, but they managed to get away with a 38-21 victory over the Great Danes, who would go on to make the FCS Playoffs this season as a memebr of the Colonial Athletic Association.

The next week saw the Chippewas face much stiffer competition in the Wisconsin Badgers and Heisman trophy frontrunner Jonathan Taylor. Quinten Dormady and Jonathan Ward both left the game in the first quarter after getting injured on the same play, and the defense couldn’t contain an explosive Badger offense in a 61-0 loss.

After trouncing Akron to open up conference play in Week 3, the Chippewas traveled to downtown Miami, Florida, to take on the Miami Hurricanes at Hard Rock Stadium. In David Moore’s first road start as a Chippewa, he led CMU, a 33-point underdog, to the precipice of a potential victory before throwing the game-sealing interception in the closing moments of a 17-12 loss.

The Chippewas finally capped off a strange out-of-conference slate in Week 7, dispatching the New Mexico State Aggies 42-28 in the return of Quinten Dormady to the starting lineup after getting injured vs. Wisconsin. It was a victory which brought relief to the fanbase, as hours before the game, David Moore had been suspended for a banned substance.

In conference play, the Chippewas had a great start, pulling out wins against Akron and Eastern Michigan at home by double-digits. They lost a head-scratcher against rival Western on the road in a game plagued by penalties, putting them into the position of having to depend on WMU to lose in the final week of games to go to Detroit.

The next two weeks saw CMU pick up their first road win of 2019 against Bowling Green, before getting trounced on the road once again in a sloppy loss to Buffalo.

CMU, with a 5-4 record in Week 9, had to pull out three wins over NIU, Ball State and Toledo, a veritable Death Row of haunting and painful memories for Chippewa fans everywhere. They managed to do so in miraculous fashion, picking up a soul-crushing win over NIU, a wild comeback victory on the road against Ball State and, finally, their first win over Toledo in ten years to secure the MAC West.


Players to watch

CMU runs its offense primarily on the ground, making Jonathan Ward and Kobe Lewis extremely important to the team’s success. Ward, a third-team all-MAC selection this season, has 1,340 total yards and 16 total touchdowns in 2019; his battery mate Lewis is also a hard runner, picking up 953 yards and 11 touchdowns. Lewis needs only 47 yards to give Central two 1,000-yard rushers in a single season, a milestone which is very likely to be broken on Saturday. Don’t be surprised if CMU breaks out Tommy Lazzaro in short-yardage packages either; the read-option specialist has five touchdowns over the last three games, including the game-tying and game-winning scores against Ball State.

In the receiving game, CMU has not one, but two first-team all-MAC selections. Kalil Pimpleton will be the focus, as the five-foot-nine, 175 lb. receiver has 73 receptions for 771 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 10.6 yards per catch. Pimpleton has blazing speed, and is a versatile player, lining up outside, in the slot and sometimes takingn the ball on rushing attempts via the jet sweep. Former high school teammate JaCorey Sullivan (47 rec., 712 yards, three touchdowns, 15.1 yards per catch) also has big play potential, and offers Dormady a reliable target to move the chains.

The Chips possess one of the best front sevens in the league, with Sean Adesanya (21 tackles, 14.5 tackles-for-loss, seven sacks, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, one interception) anchoring the line. Behind him is first-team all-MAC linebacker Troy Brown (78 total tackles, 14 tackles-for-loss, one fumble recovery, three interceptions) and second-team selection Michael Oliver (73 tackles, seven tackles-for-loss, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, one interception), a senior who will be playing blocks away from his alma mater Cass Technical High School.


Team Statistics

Offense:

  • Passing offense: 251-of-400 (62.7 percent), 3,110 yards, 18 touchdowns and nine interceptions, 7.78 yards per attempt, 12.39 yards per completion, 259.2 yards per game (40th in FBS)
  • Rushing offense: 468 carries for 2,328 yards, 33 touchdowns, 4.97 yards per carry, 194 yards per game on average (38th in FBS)
  • Redzone offense: 45-of-55; 37 touchdowns (28 rush, nine pass), eight field goals (78th in FBS)
  • First downs/third-down conversion rates: 284 first downs (112 rush, 145 pass, 45 penalties) (21st in FBS); 70-of-167 (41.9 percent) (45th in FBS)
  • Scoring offense: 32.8 points per game (41st in FBS)

Defense

  • Opponent passing totals: 235-of-387 (60.7 percent), 2,880 yards, 21 touchdowns, 12 interceptions (t-23rd in FBS), 240 yards per game on average (89th in FBS)
  • Opponent rushing totals: 413 carries, 1,420 yards, 17 rushing touchdowns, 3.44 yards per attempt, 118.3 yards per game on average (22nd in FBS)
  • Sacks/tackles-for-loss: 26 sacks for 169 yards, averaging 2.17 yards per game (t-63rd in FBS); 89 tackles-for-loss for an average of 7.4 yards per game (t-16th in FBS)
  • Redzone defense: 40-of-43, 31 touchdowns (16 rush, 15 pass), nine field goals (127th in FBS)
  • First downs/third down conversion rate: 236 first downs (89 rush, 124 pass, 23 penalties) (48th in FBS); 53-of-158 (33.5 percent) on third down (25th in FBS)
  • Scoring defense: 26.8 points per game (62nd in FBS)