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2019 MAC Football Report Card: Central Michigan Chippewas

CMU improved where they needed to, and didn’t face much regression.

Photos: James H. Jimenez (top left), Sam Navarro (USA Today, bottom right) | Illustration: James H. Jimenez

CMU was selected to finish last in most every media person’s preseason polls, as far as the MAC West and the MAC Championship game were concerned.

What followed was one of the most unexpected seasons in program history, a seven-game turnaround which nearly ended up in a conference championship. We assign a letter grade to all phases of the game and look forward to how next year could look.


CMU 2019 Schedule and Results

Date Opponent Result
Thur., Aug. 29 vs. UAlbany W 38-21
Sat., Sept. 7 at Wisconsin L 0-61
Sat., Sept. 14 vs. Akron* W 45-24
Sat., Sept. 21 at Miami (FL) L 12-17
Sat., Sept. 28 at Western Michigan* L 15-31
Sat., Oct. 5 vs. Eastern Michigan* W 42-16
Sat., Oct. 12 vs. New Mexico State [HC] W 42-28
Sat., Oct. 19 at BGSU* W 38-20
Sat., Oct. 26 at Buffalo* L 20-43
Sat., Nov. 2 vs. NIU W 48-10
Sat., Nov. 16 at Ball State W 45-44
Fri., Nov. 29 vs. Toledo W 49-7
Sat., Dec. 7

You can check out a more detailed look at the scheule in the end-of-season brief we published earlier this week, but the stry of the CMU season was in the runs they went through.

CMU was a perfect 6-0 at home, with two key wins on the road helping them net the division. Neutral site games were 0-2, but just getting to those games was a feat in and of itself, so it can be forgiven to end up with a 8-6 record.


The Offense

Passing attack:

The 2019 passing attack was a sight for sore eyes for fans who had to endure one of the country’s worst passing games by a non-option team in 2018 amongst four different quarterbacks.

CMU had two different receivers with 800 yards in Kalil Pimpleton and JaCorey Sullivan, who were both named to the all-MAC first team, while also having three receivers with over 329 yards receiving and six receivers with at least 23 receptions. Keep in mind, those stats were achieved with three different quarterbacks.

It wasn’t perfect at all times, certainly. But it was a welcome relief. Grade: A-

Rushing attack:

On top of having one of the league’s best passing attacks, the Chippewas also had two 1,000+ yard rushers in Jonathan Ward and Kobe Lewis, who both were also major contributors in the passing game.

Both backs had the penchant for big plays, often breaking out 50+ yard runs in the same game. The read-option package with Wildcat QB Tommy Lazzaro added a different dimension which took an already great running game up another notch.

One look at the game-by-game summaries will tell you this team won games on the ground. Grade: A

OVERALL:

A-

CMU finished 48th in passing offense (3,531 yards, 19 pass touchdowns in 14 games) and 42nd in rushing offense (2,539 yards and 36 rushing touchdowns), both numbers which were markedly improved from ‘18. They also finished 37th in the country in total offense (6,070 yards, 55 touchdowns, 6.08 yards per play average.)

This was a key reason CMU was able to make the push they did, and it deserves nothing but praise, even if there were lapses at the end of the season.


The Defense

Secondary:

It took a while for the secondary rotation to get all sorted out, but by the start of the conference play, CMU seemed to have it largely figured out. True freshman Kyron McKinnie-Harper was a big part of the resurgence, with 36 tackles, 10 passes defensed and two forced fumbles. McKinnie-Harper, along with sophomore Montrae Braswell, solidified the corners at the tail end of the season. Even so, the secondary was largely average, finishing 89th in the country in passing yards allowed (3,363 yards allowed, 25 passing touchdowns, 7.56 yards per attempt, 12.60 yards per completion.) The good news here is there’s no shortage of talent in this group for 2020. Grade: B

Linebackers:

The linebacking corps was serviceable in 2019, as they helped to suppliment the defensive line’s aggression in the ground game and was all right in pass coverage. Linebackers finished first, second and fifth on the tackles list, proving their prowess at tackling. They often bit on play fakes and paid the price, but when they were on, they caused a lot of havoc, totalling 34 tackles-for-loss. Michael Oliver was the heart of the team and a defensive captain, and he certainly helped to bolster the postion group overall. Grade: B-

Defensive Line:

The defensive line was perhaps the brightest spot on the Chippewas defense, as the tackle and end rotations gave opposing teams fits. The Chips finished 24th in the country in rushing defense, allowing only 1,719 yards for an average of 3.49 yards per rushing attempt. The 20 touchdowns allowed is a bit high, but that’s the price of running an aggressive 4-3 scheme.

The defensive line generated okay pressure in the pass game, picking up 26 of CMU’s 30 sacks (good for 68th in the country) while picking up 61.5 of CMU’s 111 tackles-for-loss, making the Chips one of the best havoc defenses in the country. Grade: A-

OVERALL:

The defense didn’t change too much from what we saw in 2018; the main difference was in personnel and the performance of the offense allowing the defense to get off the field. They managed to incorporate younger pieces in the secondary while still maintaining pressure on opponents late in the season, which is fantastic news as we head into 2020. If there’s one spot to be concerned about, it’s linebacker, as the team will be shallow in the interior due to graduation and injury.


Special Teams

Kicker:

It was a strange season for CMU at the kicker spot. After being named to the Lou Groza Award watchlist for a 10-of-12 season in 2018, Ryan Tice had an uneven performance in 2019, which saw him miss the majority of his kicks at home.

There were situations where the coaching staff even chose to sit Tice in key situations. But, just as often, the staff demanded a lot from Tice (seen in his going 2-of-4 from 40-49 yards and 2-of-6 from 50+ yards.) Tice finished 13-of-21 on field goals, with a handful of missed extra points as well.

He was also the primary kickoff specialist, with a 55.9 yard net average, 19 touchbacks and five kicks out-of-bounds. Brady Buell and Aiden Jennings got chances to kick off due to the uneveness. Grade: C-

Punter:

Brady Buell ultimately won the job at punter during spring camps, and booted 55 punts for a net average of 41.9 yards per kick. Those are reasonably stats for a first-year stater, but nothing to write home about. He did manage 11 punts of 50+ yards, with a long of 59 yards, but also had four touchbacks and a handful of muffed or botched punts. Buell’s versatility as a rugby and tradtional punter give him value for now.

Grade: B-

Kick/Punt Returning:

CMU averaged about 22.7 yards per kick return, which is a pretty good average for only returning 33 kicks all season. The problem was turnovers, as CMU turned over the ball several times on kickoffs. On the defensive side of the kickoff return, CMU was one of the least-efficient teams in the country, with 41 returns and 22 touchbacks, giving up 945 yards (23.05 average) and nearly giving up a opening kickoff return for a touchdown in the MAC title game.

The punt coverages saw a similar story, with average numbers in punt returns (27 returns, 12 fair catch, 212 yards) and in punt return defense (21 returns, 13 fair catch 197 yards, 9.38 yards on average.)

Grade: C

OVERALL:

Former head coach John Bonamego was a special teams whiz, and found ways to get the best out of his players in this phase of the game, so it’s not surprising to see a bit of a dip with him gone.

That said, it is a bit surpising to watch how much Tice regressed in 2019, and the amount of mental errors in the special teams games at certain points in the season, between turnovers, muffs and botched punts. With Tice graduating and some position battles expected at punter, kickoff specialist and returner, hopefully this will change.


Coaching

It cannot be denied that the coaching staff did a great job turning this outfit around.

CMU increased their win total from the previous season by 7, played for a chance to win the MAC Championship and made it to their second bowl game in three seasons. There was also noted improvement at various positions, especially along the defensive line and in the secondary.

Coach McElwain installed a culture of accountability, and wasn’t afraid of making changes when he felt they were necessary, which is usually the sign of a good coach.

There were also certainly times where McElwain’s aggression as a playcaller got the best of him, and there was usually at least one or two plays in every game which would leave fans confused. (Fake punt in the MAC title game, anyone?)

But with the results as good as they come, it’s really hard to complain from a football standpoint. The intention of the McElwain hire was to bring CMU back to being a competitive prouct, and he’s done exactly that— and ahead of schedule, to boot.

Grade:

A-

Overall

CMU definitely overachieved in 2019, considering the expectations.

They completely flipped the outlook of the offense, even with the unsteadiness at quarterback, while continuing to show off one of the better defenses in the MAC. They were competitive in games they were expected to compete in, and found ways to win games they needed badly.

It certainly wasn’t a perfect transition, by any means.

CMU struggled to find footing early due to some injuries, and went through several rough patches along the way. This team was also on the precipice many times in the season for a trophy, but just never quite closed on it, missing opportunities to clinch the Michigan MAC, the Victory Cannon, the MAC Championship and the bowl game.

That will surely be some motivation going into 2020, as they’ll look to have a tangible reward to mark their progress as a team.