It was a game to forget if you were looking for quality on-field football, as the Central Michigan Chippewas (2-3, 1-1 MAC) and Western Michigan Broncos (3-2, 1-0 MAC) fought their way to a 31-16 slugfest in Kalamazoo.
The teams combined for an impressive 30 penalties at the end of the day, with some of the highlights including seven offsides penalties on defense for CMU and four unsportsmanlike conducts on one drive for WMU.
Even despite the rugby scrum the game turned into at points, there was still a football game somewhere in that mess, and some lessons to learn as a result.
CMU’s defense regressed horribly
After showing out against the Miami Hurricanes last week, the CMU defense looked outclassed at most every level of the game on Saturday.
Struggling to contain the WMU running game is one thing; the Broncos have proven all season they are more than willing to run the ball over, under or thorugh you if need be. But it was the small errors the Chips made on defense throughout the game which were especially egregious.
CMU’s defensive line jumped the WMU snap an unbelievable seven times during the game, with nose tackle Jacques Bristol, hero of last week’s game, responsible for at least three of those infractions. He could be seen throwing himself on the ground and pounding the Waldo Stadium turf after the third one, which saw him pulled out of the game for a while. Those weren’t the only mistakes. A number of after the play penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct also doomed CMU, including a horrible roughing the kicker penalty by Chuck Jones which gifted WMU a touchdown drive and an unsportsmanlike conduct by Willie Reid which was ultimately put under review for targeting and confirmed as an ejection.
The defense, in total, gave up 432 yards, including 188 on the ground, to set up their second-worst performance of the season. The defense also gave up three first downs due to penalty for the Broncos, and could not get off the field, allowing 7-of-15 conversions on third-and-fourth downs.
CMU also allowed the Broncos to score on all four of their redzone trips, three of which resulted in rushing touchdowns from three different players. It was, without a doubt, a frustrating performance for the Chippewas.
CMU played completely undsiciplined football, missing tackles and clearly frustrated by better execution on the part of WMU, making a lot of knuckle-headed plays which came back to hurt them later in the game. This performance was in stark contrast to the game against Miami (FL), where the Chippewas stayed engaged with a Hurricane offense which blew out Bethune-Cookman in Week 3 and forced them into making mistakes.
The clearest downgrade for the defense from the Miami (FL) game to the WMU game was on the defensive line. After turning in a four sack, six tackle-for-loss performance against the ‘Canes, the defensive line collected zero sacks and two tackles-for-loss against the Broncos. It was clear they weren’t ready to play.
Playcalling on offense for CMU left a lot to be desired
The Chippewas offense actually looked really good on Saturday, even despite some early bad luck.
The Chips suffered a freak interception on the first possession to give WMU the ball and the early lead, but they were at least holding up to the Broncos’ pace on offense throughout. This was most evident in the time of possession, as WMU only edged CMU by about one-and-a-half minutes for the entirety of the game.
In a surprise start, Jonathan Ward picked up 107 yards (with no yards lost!) to lead all rushers on 19 carries, to go along with two receptions for 21 yards to help pace the Chippewa offense, which drove down the field seeming at will at points during the game.
David Moore also had a career game, completing 33-of-48 attmepts for 338 yards and a touchdown, with two interceptions. Moore’s moxie showed itself once again, as Moore was unafraid to stand in the pocket and seek out the open receiver, targeting small windowns and getting the ball out fast, especially on crossing routes.
What ultimately stopped this CMU offense from being truly successful was the playcalling, especially decisions to go for it on fourth down inside WMU territory. Perhaps the most egregious example was on the first fourth-down conversion attempt of the day, when CMU was down 7-0 with 11 minutes to go in the first quarter.
Kobe Lewis came in for his first carry of the day on a fourth-and-three play from the WMU 9 in place of Jonathan Ward, who had ran for 37 yards on the first two drives up to that point of the day, including two 11-yard runs on the first drive and two three-yard runs on the prior plays in the second drive. David Moore attempted to catch the WMU defensive line off-guard by changing the play at the liine of scrimmage, then approacing the sideline to ask for a play. The ball was directly snapped to Lewis, who was unable to get to the line of scrimmage before getting taken down by multiple Bronco defenders, who overloaded the left side of the line in anticipation of a run.
It was a baffling call at that point in the game, and turned potentially a 7-3 game into a 10-0 game on the next possession, with CMU chasing points the rest of the way. Jim McElwain, despite having one of the nation’s best kickers in Ryan Tice, opted not to use him on several occasions, including on another drive early in the second quarter from inside the WMU 45 (opting for a punt instead) and another fourth-down conversion attempt with Kobe Lewis on the WMU 15 before the end of the half.
On the day, CMU was 1-of-4 on fourth-down conversions, only converting once during a drive which ultimately ended in... a failed fourth-down conversion deep in the WMU redzone. CMU left at least nine points, if not more, in their pockets due to some questionable decisions on the part of the coaching staff, and it’s a shame, because the CMU offense was more than up to the task against the Broncos, even despite three turnovers. In a game as fiercely matched as this one was, it’s often won or lost in the margins, and it could be argued the staff didn’t put the offense in a good position to succeed and gain momentum.
LeVante Bellamy looked healthy, and that’s good for WMU
There were questions about how healthy Bellamy would beafter coming out of the Syracsue game a little banged up, but he dispelled most of those concerns quickly against CMU. Bellamy finished with 25 carries for 105 yards and a touchdown, with a long run of 21 yards and averaging about 4.4 yards per rush.
Bellamy, like several WMU backs before him, has been the traditional workhorse for the Bronco offense, and is key to their success on the field. It’s no different this season, as Bellamy has ran for 100+ yards over his last three games, picking up six touchdowns along the way. It’s just in time for the MAC season, too, as WMU no longer has out-of-conference opponents to worry about.
The offense fired on all cylinders, thanks in part to Bellamy, but also thanks to the offensive line, which didn’t allow any sacks and gave Jon Wassink a comfrotbale pocket with which to tear apart the CMU defense with. Wassink finished 18-of-29 for 244 yards and one touchdown, and also adding 65 yards rushing on six carries to extend drives at pivotal moments. Wassink especially attaked the middle of the field, as Skyy Moore (four receptions, 67 yards) and Gio Ricci (three receptions, 65 yards and a touchdown) took the interior of the CMU defense to task on seam and slant routes.
If WMU can keep producing 400+ yards of offense and 30+ points per game heading into the month of October, the Broncos will immediately be a favorite to contend for the MAC West division, even despite the up-and-down start. They’re 3-1 in those games, which is a pretty good indication of a team which knows how to finish.
WMU’s secondary will be just fine without D’EWayne Eskridge
There was concern about whether or not the WMU secondary could suffer from the loss of Dee Skridge to a season-ending collarbone injury, especially as the players under Eskridge in the depth chart don’t have a lot of experience.
It turned out all right, as Anton Curtis and Patrick Lupro epsecially stepped up in Eskridge’s abscence. Lupro set the expectation on the first drive of the game, making a circus catch on his back to pick off David Moore. Lupro finished with eight total tackles and the INT, while Curtis finished with six total tackles and a forced fumble which ended another promising CMU drive in the third quarter. Justin Tranquill, getting the start at the safety spot, picked up an interception as well to end yet another promising CMU drive. (Catching a theme here?)
WMU had a bend-don’t-break philosophy in the passing game, and it worked to a large degree. They gave up 330 passing yards, but no one receiver had more than six catches or 82 yards through the air, with the WMU defense not giving up a passing touchdown until the late stages of the fourth quarter, well after the game had been put away.
In all three of their wins so far this season, the Broncos haven’t given up any more than 15 points. It’ll be interesting to see if that trend continues as we head into the heart of the schedule.
On rebuilding for both coaches
Both Jim McElwain and Tim Lester are in different plases of program rebuilds, and it was clear on Saturday.
McElwain inherits a young and talented, if a bit undsiciplined, roster which is in the process of adapting to a different system and taking on a new identity. Satuday was a step back for the program after a few promising games, as the Chippewas’ mistakes stacked on top of each other and ultimately overwhelmed them. They’ll had (and will have) better days this season, but Saturday’s tapes should be burned after viewing. This week in practice will be a very important one for McElwain and his staff, as they’ll have to balance compassion for the players’ emotion in a rivalry game with accountability for their mistakes as they try to build a culture.
Lester, meanwhile, is nearly complete with his rebuild of the Broncos after the sudden departure of PJ Fleck to Minnesota. Lester’s teams have never seen the high sights of the old Fleck squads, but at the same time, the floor has been relatively stable. Now in his third season, Lester largely has a roster filled with his recruits and it’s becoming apparent he’s got the Broncos heading in a good direction, even if results weren’t immediate. If anything, he’s become a steady presence in Kalamazoo. With a down year in the MAC so far, this could be WMU’s best chance in a while to finally take down NIU and/or Toledo to get back to Detroit.