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2019 MAC Championship Game: Players to Watch

From Central Michigan’s rushing duo to Miami’s star defensive tackle, here are the names which will define Saturday’s matchup in Detroit.

Buffalo v Miami Ohio Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Detroit awaits Miami (OH) and Central Michigan for a Saturday afternoon showdown. The RedHawks haven’t been to the MAC’s biggest stage in nine seasons while the Chippewas have waited exactly a decade since appearing in the conference title game.

With loads of underrated talent on both sides of the ball for both programs involved, here are several names to learn before the 2019 MAC Championship Game commences at Ford Field.

Quinten Dormady, QB, Central Michigan, #12 — Dormady’s college career has been a long journey, originating in Knoxville and passing through Houston. But the fifth-year senior quarterback has found a home in Mount Pleasant, and his pairing with Jim McElwain was the perfect change of scenery he needed in 2019. Dormady is one of the 20 most accurate passers in all of college football and threw for 1,916 yards and 13 touchdowns as the team’s primary starter since mid-October. He improves every week and his best three outings were his last three — completing over 70% of passes and throwing for 250 yards in each contest during a three-game winning streak.

Brett Gabbert, QB, Miami (OH), #5 — Yes, Brett is the brother of former Missouri Tigers and current Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Blaine Gabbert. But the younger Gabbert, by 11 years, is making quite name for himself at the collegiate level. The true freshman snatched the RedHawks starting QB job in preseason and hasn’t let go. Gabbert threw for nearly 2,000 yards in the regular season and averaged over 14 yards per completion. He frequents the deep ball and he has a tremendous release on such throws. As a result, Gabbert was named the MAC Freshman of the Year while leading Miami to its first MAC Championship Game since 2010.

Tommy Lazzaro, QB, Central Michigan, #7 — Lazzaro was the starting quarterback for much of 2018, and while he doesn’t take most snaps under center anymore, he still is a dangerous threat in Central Michigan’s offense. Lazzaro is primarily used in power run packages, where he has rushed 27 times for 108 yards and six touchdowns this season. The Chippewas are increasing Lazzaro’s utilization rate in recent weeks, giving the wildcat quarterback seven carries against Northern Illinois on November 2 and five in the blowout win over Toledo on Black Friday.

Jonathan Ward & Kobe Lewis, RB, Central Michigan, #5/#4 Buffalo is the only team in the country with two 1,000 yard rushers in 2019, but the Chippewas can easily give the Bulls company after Saturday’s matchup with the RedHawks. In an impressive bounce-back season, Ward has accumulated 1,056 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns (12th in FBS) as Central Michigan’s primary back. While Ward picks up 6.4 yards per carry, the Chippewas also receive impressive production out of sophomore halfback Kobe Lewis. Lewis was seldom used as a freshman, but he’s 47 yards away from also attaining the century mark. Like his backfield colleague, Lewis also has earned plenty of end zone visits this season. His 11 rushing touchdowns are tied for 34th in the FBS. Halfback screens are also commonplace for the pair, as Ward and Lewis combine for 50 receptions and 441 yards this season.

Jaylon Bester & Tyre Shelton, RB, Miami (OH), #1/#20 — While Bester and Shelton don’t have the yardage totals of Ward and Lewis, Miami employs a formidable running back duo of its own. Bester has been the RedHawks’ workhorse all year, obtaining over 600 yards and 11 touchdowns on 132 carries. Bester recorded two 100-yard rushing games in the regular season while Shelton added one in a 148-yard rampage against Kent State. Miami is facing one of the elite run defenses in the MAC, so accelerated production will be expected out of the backs. Central Michigan is second in the conference and 22nd in the nation at stopping the run, limiting opponents to 120.1 rushing yards per game.

Kalil Pimpleton, WR, Central Michigan, #88 — With star running backs such as LeVante Bellamy, Jaret Patterson, Bryant Koback, and Ward producing much of the yardage in this conference, wide receivers didn’t have as much of an impact on MAC offenses this season. But Pimpleton is an exception. The MAC’s receptions and receiving yards leader, Pimpleton utilized his speed to torch opposing defenses all season long. The 5’9” receiver caught 73 passes for 771 yards and was a consistent threat in McElwain’s offense from Week 1 to Week 14. Expect Pimpleton to be heavily used in the screen game and involved in several key reverse plays, as Central Michigan constantly looks for ways to use his speed to the offense’s advantage.

Central Michigan v Miami Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Jack Sorenson, WR, Miami (OH), #13 — Sorenson caught 53 passes for 742 yards as a sophomore in 2018 and ranks first on the RedHawks in receptions in 2019 with 26. Miami has shifted its play-calling toward the run game this season, but Sorenson still makes a positive impact when the ball is thrown his way. He closed the season with four receptions, 76 yards, and a touchdown against Ball State — his best all-around performance of the year. But his hands are reliable and he’s been known to make athletic plays, including an acrobatic juggling catch in the end zone in a midweek win over Ohio.

Tony Poljan, TE, Central Michigan, #85 — Once thought to be the future of Central Michigan at quarterback, Poljan is effectively contributing to the Chippewas’ offense in another area. At 6’7” and 235 pounds, Poljan is perfectly built for an end zone tight end target, and he’s been the recipient of 30 passes this season including four that were good for touchdowns. Poljan’s seamless position transfer has benefited the team this year by giving them a strong target to connect with in the middle of the field, and he’s third on the team with 458 receiving yards. One of McElwain’s most impressive feats this year is getting Central Michigan’s former quarterbacks Poljan and Lazzaro involved in the offense, and involved in an effective manner.

Doug Costin, DT, Miami (OH), #58 — He’s possibly the best defensive player in the MAC. Costin is one giant disruption in the middle of the RedHawks’ defensive line, and he’s essentially the Aaron Donald of the conference. The First Team All-MAC defensive tackle registered 3.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss this year, but the pressure he applies on opposing backfields doesn’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet. His 51 tackles are impressive for an interior lineman, and he also forced a fumble and recovered two this season. Costin’s sharp influence on the turnover battle propelled Miami to its significant rivalry win over Ohio in early November.

Michael Oliver, ILB, Central Michigan, #7 — Central Michigan’s run defense is one of the upper tier units in the nation and Oliver is responsible for the team’s lofty rank. As the heart of the Chippewas’ defense while serving as the program’s follow-up act former star inside linebacker Malik Fountain, the Second Team All-MAC selection has chipped in 73 total tackles this season and 7.5 hits in the backfield. Much of Miami’s offensive production Saturday will be determined by Oliver’s success in stopping the RedHawks’ duo of Bester and Shelton.

Troy Brown, OLB, Central Michigan, #8 — Brown ranks top five in the MAC in three key statistical categories. The outside linebacker is first in the conference in tackles for loss with 15, and he’ll play a key role in limiting Miami’s running back duo on Saturday afternoon. Brown also checks in at second in solo tackles with 66 and fifth in interceptions with three. As a former defensive back, he excels in coverage and may draw matchups with Miami’s slot receivers or its tight end, Andrew Homer.

Sterling Weatherford, SS, Miami (OH), #21 — Weatherford is Miami’s leader with 86 total tackles this season, and he’ll be spotted everywhere on the field in Detroit. In the backfield, the versatile strong safety has logged two sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. In the secondary, Weatherford has seven pass breakups and an interception to his name. He’s forced and recovered two fumbles each and serves as the RedHawks’ full utility player. No matter what style of offense Miami’s defense faces, Weatherford is sure to cause an impact due to his hard-hitting ability and his hands in the realm of pass defense.

Northern Illinois v Miami Ohio Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Sam Sloman, K, Miami (OH), #79 — Miami won three of its final five games by exactly three points. One common denominator in those victories was the presence of Sam Sloman. The Second Team All-MAC field goal connected on key field goals in all of the RedHawks’ close victories, and if the game comes down to special teams, Sloman provides Miami an advantage with his leg. The senior kicker is 4/5 this year on kicks of 50 yards or longer. He’s 4/6 from 40-49 yards, 5/6 from 30-39 yards, and a perfect 8/8 below 30 yards. Sloman perfected all 30 extra points this year and pitched in a game-winning 51-yard field goal in Miami’s 24-21 win in Athens on college football’s 150th anniversary.

The MAC Championship Game at Ford Field in Detroit kicks off at 12 p.m. ET on Saturday and is watchable on ESPN2.