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2019 MAC Football Game Preview: Central Michigan Chippewas vs. Albany Great Danes

The Chippewas and Great Danes look to start their seasons on the right track in this Thursday night matchup.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 29 Central Michigan at Michigan State Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Chippewas have been trying to get the taste of an 1-11 season off their tongue all offseason. So much so, that a great amount of change happened between Black Friday and today.

For one, gone is John Bonamego, the first alum to coach the Chippewas since the 1950’s. In his stead is former Florida head coach Jim McElwain, who looks to redeem himself after a less-than-triumphant end to his previous tenure as a head coach.

The vast majority of the defense turns over for the Chippewas, with nine starters replaced out of 11 positions. The offense, too, is shiny and new, with transfers at quarterback, wide receiver and guard that look to shine this season after striking out elsewhere. Last season’s starting quarterback is now a tight end… as are all but two of the QB’s who were in the room in 2018.

Even the stadium will have a different look and feel, as the old locker rooms have been torn down to make way for a new, $30 million Champions Center. Players now dress up in a series of trailers adjacent to the Indoor Athletic Facility. A new 32 foot-by-100 foot LED video board now occupies the opposite endzone, and the canvas which had stood unchanged and faded since the early 2010’s has finally been given its leave, replaced with newer, brighter replacements.

This is all a long way of saying the 2019 season is going to be one full of growing pains and development, and CMU’s performance against Albany will go a long way towards painting the broader picture.

CMU has had notoriously bad games with FCS opponents over the last decade. Last season, their only win of the season was against Maine, by a score of 17-5. They’ve fought not one, not two, but FOUR lower-divison squads to ten-point-or-less victories in the last eight seasons. This makes Central’s game against Albany a very important indicator of progress from last season to now.

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What to expect when CMU has the ball

CMU will look to run a similar offense to what much of the college football runs (and very similar to what they ran last season), with a read option spread look. Last season’s edition, which featured Tony Poljan at the controls, an injured Jonathan Ward and receivers who struggled to maintain separation, has been effectively scrapped of much of its previous cogs, but in many respects, the core idea is still there.

Quinten Dormady, the double transfer from Tennessee via Houston, will be expected to make multiple reads in a short amount of time and either hand the ball to the back or pass it downfield. As with many other read option spread looks, much of the passes will be reliant on timing routes, short and intermediate passes and an effective run game. The offense is also expected to feature a lot of traditional pro-style looks as well, to mix in with the college-style read option.

As a recruit, Dormady was known to have a high football IQ, with a strong arm to compliment his game. It should be a good fit in this offense, which will require him to diagnose defenses quickly and take advantage of exposed weaknesses. While at Tennessee, where he started parts of two seasons, the former four-star recruit finished with 1,282 yards, seven touchdowns and six interceptions, completing 56.8 percent of his throws.

Jonathan Ward returns at running back for his senior season, looking to recuperate from what was a rough 2018 campaign. Ward had to play through a variety of injuries (as well as self-admitted low morale) in a season which saw him gain 253 yards and no touchdowns over nine games, but looks to be healthy and motivated in fall camps. A return to something close to his 2017 form, where he picked up 1,351 yards and 11 touchdowns, would be ideal for the offense’s success.

Th 2019 edition of the Chippewas replaces every receiving option from last year except for tight end Bernhard Raimann, who was bumped down to TE2 with the emergence of Tony Poljan at the position. Brandon Childress and Jamil Sabbaugh are both off the roster due to injury. Cam Cole and Drayton Law, previously key rotation pieces, are in reserve roles. In their stead, we’ll see Kalil Pimpleton as a slot receiver, with four players expected to rotate on the outside spots. Redshirt freshmen Tyrone Scott and Keonta Nixon expected to be the favorites for the spot. True junior Ja’Corey Sullivan and redshirt sophomore Bailey Edwards (brother of former NFL’er Braylon) will also be in the mix for playing time. Sullivan (18 catches for 153 yards and two touchdowns) returns with the most experience, but wasn’t listed on the two-deeps on Tuesday afternoon.

The offense will make plenty of use of the tight ends, with head coach Jim McElwain stating during fall camps that he’s looking to use plenty of two-or-three tight end sets in-game. The tight end room is perhaps the most talented position group on offense, and will start two six-foot-seven, 245+ lb. tight ends in Poljan and Raimann, who are vertical threat mismatches. Redshirt freshman Joel Wilson and true freshman Javon Gantt could also get looks in three-end sets as “move” ends or H-back as well.

Albany, which runs a 4-3 look on defense, ranked 48th overall in total defense at the FCS level in 2018, averaging 371.1 yards per game, and had the 40th best rushing defense as well, so this will certainly be a unit not to be underestimated.

The defense features a pretty good linebacker corps, with two ‘backers who picked up 80+ tackles in redshirt junior Levi Matheny (92 tackles, 9.5 tackles-for-loss, one sack and two interceptions) and junior Danny Damico (81 tackles, four tackles-for-loss, one forced fumble.) Matheny and Damico paced the Great Danes in defensive output and will once again feature in the heart of the defense.

The defensive front will return several experienced players, including two fifth-year senior defensive tackles in defensive tackle Nick Dillon (22 tackles, 3.0 tackles-for-loss, 1.5 sacks) and Nick Griffin (nine tackles in injury-shortened season.) Redshirt senior Eli Mencer makes the conversion from linebacker to defensive end after a 2018 season which saw him lead the team in sacks (4.5), finish third on the team in tackles (85) and second in tackles-for-loss (8.5.) He’ll have true junior Anthony Lang (19 tackles, five tackles-for-loss, four sacks), who came on late in the season, as a battery mate on the opposite end.

Albany’s biggest weakness will likely be in the secondary, whose returnees combined to grab two interceptions in 2018. To put that in perspective, linebacker Levi Matheny led the way for the team with two interceptions. They do return several starters, highlighted by redshirt senior cornerback Kareem Gibson (42 tackles, one interception, eight pass break-ups on nine passses defended) and senior strong safety Tyler Carswell (43 tackles, one pass break-up on one pass defended, two fumble recoveries.) Senior free safety Josh Wynn (17 tackles in four games/starts) returns after sustaining a season-ending injury, while transfer senior cornerback Jarren Williams (53 tackles, 14 tackles and an interception at St.Francis [PA] University in three seasons) will look to start off on the right foot against an equally unproven CMU offense.

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What to expect when Albany has the ball

Albany’s offense looks for big plays and efficient passing decisions. Under Adrian [MI] College alum offensive coordinator Joe Davis, the Great Danes sported the Colonial Athletic Association’s best yards per completion statistic (14.31 yards per completion) in 2018, while averaging about 335 yards per game on offense.

It certainly wasn’t the best offense at the FCS level, as the Great Danes sported the 97th-ranked total offense and 100th-ranked total scoring offense (21.1 points per game average.) Their passing offense was fairly decent, even despite the -9 turnover margin (107th in FCS), averaging 219.1 yards per game through the air (67th in FCS,) while the rushing offense eclipsed the 110-yard mark on average (98th in FCS.)

Albany will be breaking in a new quarterback in redshirt freshman Jeff Undercuffler, who started three games under the new redshirt rules, throwing for 526 yards, four touchdowns and five interceptions. He replaces Vincent Testaverde, the son of former NFL’er Vinny Testaverde, who finished his Albany career with 1,714 yards, 11 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Undercuffler won the position in fall camps partly due to injury to Nevada transfer Griffin Dahn, who broke his hand. Dahn was pushing Undercuffler throughout camps prior to the injury, so this week’s game will be a chance for Undercuffler to try and secure the job.

Junior running back Karl Mofor, a part-time starter last season, returns to lead the Great Dane rushing attack in 2019 after a 794 total yard and seven total touchdown campaign (five rushing, two receiving.)

All four of Albany’s starting receivers return in 2019, and each brings something different to the table. Dev Holmes was the Great Danes’ leading receiver in 2018, finishing with 50 passes for 734 yards and five touchdowns as a true freshman. Senior transfer Juwan Green (a former linebacker at Lackawanna [PA]), is the big play target and primary kick returner, with two games of over 100+ yards receiving in nine games and 429 yards and four touchdowns for the season. Jerah Reeves (36 catches, 581 yards and three touchdowns) and Donovan McDonald (28 catches, 383 yards) will also be steady contributors who can stretch the field and give the Great Danes options downfield.

CMU will counter the spread offense with an aggressive 4-3 look which will be predicated on activity and blitz packages. This “damn the torpedoes” defense has been a fixture of CMU defenses in the past, and it certainly worked last season, as CMU was the second-best in the MAC in total defense (355.3 yards allowed per game on average) and 36th in the country. CMU’s aggressive tactics also made them a top-10 team in the country in scoring defense (22.1 points per game allowed on average) and forced 22 turnovers on the season. Even with the new coaching changes, the new install will take advantage of a personnel which is suited for it.

CMU will have Sean Adensanya and Amir Siddiq at the ends and some combination of LaQuan Johnson, D’Andre Dill and Robi Stewart in the defensive tackle rotation depending on the look. The defensive front will suffer from the transfer of first-team all-MAC performer Mike Danna to Michigan, but Adesanya did well as a rotation end in 2018 and Siddiq shows promising speed and quickness.

The linebacking corps will return some part-time starters in outside ‘backers Michael Oliver and Troy Brown, while Andrew Ward, a transfer from Nebraska, will man the middle of the front seven. It’ll be a largely unproven unit who should gel in time. Corey Gildersleeve, Chuck Jones and George Douglas could get some looks as well as rotation pieces.

The defense secondary will once again be the strength of this Chippewa defense. Da’Quaun Jamison and Devonni Reed return to the free and strong safety positions once again in 2019, while Brandon Brown and Darius Bracy move up the depth chart from last season to secure starting roles after the departures of Sean Murphy-Bunting and Xavier Crawford to the NFL. Independence [KS] CC transfer Dishon McNary and redshirt sophomore Norman Anderson will look to get some snaps in as well in sub-packages or within rotation.

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Game information:

  • Where: Kelly-Shorts Stadium in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan
  • When: Thursday, August 29, 2019 at 7:00 p.m. Eastern time
  • Weather: 76 degrees with a 43 percent chance of thunderstorms. Wind from the northeast at 15 MPH, with increasing chance of rain after kickoff, per weather.com.
  • How to watch: The game will be broadcast exclusively on ESPN3 via the ESPN App. A valid cable subscription may be required.
  • Lines: CMU is listed as a 14.5 point favorite, with an over/under of 45.5 points, per OddsShark.

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Prediction

I’m loathe to make score predictions when it comes to games in general, but it is worth noting that the weather is expected to be uncooperative as the night progresses, meaning both teams may have to play a style they’re not comfortable with at the moment.

If it comes down to a game predicated on the run, CMU’s athletes and pro-style formations should be able to take them forward to victory in an ugly game. If weather is not a factor, it should be a good test for a CMU team with little-to-no expectations for the upcoming season and give them a chance to tune up their offensive and defensive philosophies. Regardless, CMU should be able to walk away with a win here, though it could be close once again.