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2020 Mid-American Conference Football Week 1 Game Preview: Central Michigan Chippewas vs. Ohio Bobcats

The Chips start off their division title defense at home on national TV, while Ohio seeks to get off on the right foot in their cross-division match.

James H. Jimenez

A November kickoff to the football season will be foreign territory for both the Central Michigan Chippewas (8-6 in 2019) and the Ohio Bobcats (7-6 in 2019) when they take the field on Wednesday night in front of the ESPN cameras, but nothing has been especially familiar in 2020— except for the return of football to the fall season.

The MAC elected to have all cross-division games to kick off the truncated 2020 football season, resulting in the first meeting between these two programs since 2017, when CMU escaped Athens with a 26-23 road victory.

CMU will begin their West division title defense in the recently-renovated Kelly/Shorts Stadium, seeking to show in the second year of Jim McElwain that 2019’s growth wasn’t a simple fluke. Ohio, meanwhile, will play in the first game of the post-Nathan Rourke era, as they seek to once again make the postseason, something which has become a standard since Frank Solich took over the program over a decade ago, and perhaps pick up their first divison championship since 2016 in a wide-open East race.


Game Info

  • Where: Kelly/Shorts Stadium, in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan
  • When: Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020 at 7 p.m. EST
  • Where to Watch/Stream: ESPN (cable), ESPN App (streaming, valid cable subscription required.)
  • Where to Listen: For a CMU perspective, tune in to 98.5 WUPS-FM. Adam Jaksa makes his debut as full-time play-by-play broadcaster, while Brock Gutierrez returns for his eighth season as color commentator. For an Ohio perspective, tune in to Power 105 FM. Russ Eisentein (play-by-play, 12th season) and Rob Corneilius (color) will call the action.
  • Weather: 57 degrees and sunny, with a light northwesterly wind, per Weather.com.
  • Odds: CMU is a one-point favorite, with an over/under of 59.5 points, per OddsShark.

Series History

History is firmly in favor of the Chippewas in this matchup, as they’ve only been bested five times since 1972. The overall record of games between the two teams since that first meeting is 25-5-2, in favor of CMU.

Ohio’s last victory against the Chippewas came nearly a decade ago, a 43-28 victory against Dan Enos’ squad in Mt. Pleasant back in 2011. For Central, their last victory came in 2017, as mentioned previously.

CMU carries a four-game win streak in this series dating back to 2013, when the Chippewas avenged the 2011 loss on the road by a final score of 26-23.

Relevant streaks and stats (all via Winsipedia)

  • Largest CMU win streak: 10 seasons (1981-1990)
  • Largest Ohio win streak: 2 seasons (2000-01)
  • Largest CMU margin of victory: 52-7 (1990)
  • Largest Ohio margin of victory: 52-3 (2000)
  • Current streak: CMU, 4 (2013-2017)

Previewing Central Michigan

Quick Stats (from 2019)

  • Avergage points per game: 30.43
  • Average points allowed per game: 28.29
  • Average offensive yards per game: 433.6 (252.21 passing; 181.4 rushing)
  • Average yards allowed per game: 363.3 (240.21 passing, 122.8 rushing)

The offseason presented a number of interesting departures for the Chippewas on both sides of the ball—but also a number of returnees who should help CMU remain a strong favorite to win the West division.

The gameday status of QB David Moore is uncertain due to a lack of clarity from the NCAA in regards to his eligibility stemming from a previous suspension appeal. That leaves redshirt freshman Daniel Richardson, last year’s third-stringer, as the starter going into Wednesday. Richardson picked up a reputation for being a gamer in the tough Miami (FL) hihg school football scene, winning a state title as a freshman, winning Player of the Year for the south Florida area as a sophomore, and setting the all-time career passing yards and touchdowns record in Dade County. He finished his high school career with 9,791 passing yards, 116 passing touchdowns, 1,600 rushing yards and 32 rushing touchdowns. Ty Brock, a transfer out of Sam Houston State, will serve as the backup, comping favorably with Tommy Lazzaro, last year’s Wildcat QB.

The good news for whoever takes the first snaps at QB is that a good majority of CMU’s production makes its return, with Kalil Pimpleton (82 receptions, 894 yards, six touchdowns), JaCorey Sullivan (57 receptions, 808 yards, three touchdowns) and Kobe Lewis (1,074 yards, 12 touchdowns) all returning to reclaim their starting spots.

They’ll have to navigate the season with four new starters along the offensive line, as only Jamezz Kimbrough (missed 2019 due to injury) has been confirmed as the starting center going into this week’s game. A lot of CMU’s success in 2019 was thanks to a senior-laden offensive line opening up the gaps, so how quickly the chosen group will acclimate to one another.

The defensive line will miss contributors such as Jacques Bristol (opt-out), Sean Adesanya (graduation) and D’Andre Dill (graduation), but do return LaQuan Johnson (33 tackles, 13 tackles-for-loss, 6.5 sacks), Robi Stuart (32 tackles, 9.5 tackles-for-loss, three sacks) and Tico Brown (13 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, one sack) on the interior, and Troy Hairston (28 tackles, five tackles-for-loss) and Amir Siddiq (10 tackles, two tackles-for-loss) at the two end positions.

First-team all-MAC linebacker Troy Brown anchors the defensive middle, with 83 tackles, 17.5 tackles-for-loss, and three interceptions in 2019. He’ll be joined by fellow returnees George Douglas (19 tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks) and Chuck Jones (43 tackles, 6.5 tackles-for-loss) in the 4-3 look, making CMU’s front seven one of the more experienced units on the roster.

The major question for CMU’s defense will be at the secondary, with two talented but unproven Power Five transfers set to occupy starting roles in Brandon Edwards (Florida) and Richard Bowens III (Iowa State), while Brandon Brown (14 tackles, seven pass breakups) will likely play at the nickel. This stems from the dual departures of Kyron McKinnie-Harper (dismissed) and Montrae Braswell (transfer to Missouri State) in the offseason. McKinnie-Harper and Braswell combined for 20 of 52 CMU’s pass breakups in 2019, which leaves a lot of pass coverage on the table. The safety rotation should be fairly solid, however, with Devonni Reed, Gage Kreski, Alonzo McCoy and Willie Reid all returning to the defensive backfield.

It’s difficult to know how the special teams will look, with CMU replacing both their kicker Ryan Tice (graduation) and punter Brady Buell (transfer) going into this season. Luke Elzinga, a lefty, projects to start at punter, while Aiden Jennings is the likely starter at kicker.


Previewing Ohio

Quick Stats (from 2019)

  • Avergage points per game: 34.3
  • Average points allowed per game: 26.5
  • Average offensive yards per game: 442.6 (221.8 passing; 220.5 rushing)
  • Average yards allowed per game: 403.7 (237.4 passing, 166.3 rushing)

Ohio lost one of the most dynamic players in program history over the offseason, as quarterback Nathan Rourke graduated and was selected in the Canadian Football League amateur draft. Rourke departed Athens with 7,457 passing yards and 60 passing touchdowns to go along with 2,639 rushing yards and 49 rushing touchdowns, all high-water marks for Bobcat quarterbacks.

Replacing him will be no easy feat, but at least fans will have a familiar name at QB1, as Kurtis Rourke, Nathan’s brother, will receive the starting snaps against Central on Wednesday. Head coach Frank Solich confirmed the depth chart on his radio show Tuesday night, saying Armani Rogers, the UNLV grad transfer, will also get some playing time in the game.

The younger Rourke has no real experience at the FBS level other than a few garbage time snaps, accumulating 20 yards on three carries and no passing attempts, but did show himself to be a capable quarterback at Holy Trinity [Ontario] HS, with 4,955 total yards and 69 total touchdowns as a starter. Rogers is a former starter at UNLV, with 2,465 passing yards, 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions through the air, and 1,549 yards and 18 rushing touchdowns on the ground in 20 starts.

Whoever takes the reins at QB will have the help of one of the better returning running back stables in the conference, with O’Shaan Allison (138 rush, 869 yards, six touchdowns), De’Montre Tuggle (101 rushes, 644 yards, 11 touchdowns) and Julian Ross (76 rushes, 284 yards, one touchdown.) Nathan Rourke was the team’s second-leading rusher in 2019, which makes the potential for Kurtis Rourke or Rogers as a rushing option extremely compelling, given both have shown the propensity for running when needed.

The receiving corps looks largely intact from 2019 to 2020 as well, as WR’s Isiah Cox (39 receptions, 663 yards, two touchdowns), Shane Hooks (26 rec., 515 yards, five touchdowns), Jerome Buckner (18 rec., 326 yards, two touchdowns) and TE Ryan Luehrman (28 rec., 360 yards, five touchdowns) all return to reclaim their roles, which should help them comtinue to run one of the most balanced offenses in the conference.

The defense will see a number of changes, as safety Javon Hague (graduation), DT Cole Baker (graduation), DB Marlin Brooks (opt-out) and LB Dylan Conner (opt-out) won’t be along for the 2020 campaign.

The defensive tackle spots will likely be in rotation once again, with a lot of new names getting snaps, as junior Kai Caesar (31 total tackles, 2.4 tackles-for-loss, one sack) is the returnee with the most experience. Redshirt freshmen Denzel Daxon and Jeremiah Burton, as well as redshirt sophomores Kyuen McCracken and Zach Burns should all get a chance to get reps along the line. The defensive ends return two experienced ends in Austin Conrad (36 tackles, 6.5 tackles-for-loss, four sacks) and Amos Ogun-Seymore (25 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss, two sacks) as well, which should help the pass rush.

Jared Dorsa (80 tackles, six tackles-for-loss) returns to anchor the linebacking corps, with promising underclassmen Keye Thompson (51 tackles, 5.5 tackles-for-loss) and Jack McCrory (19 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, 2.5 sacks) all expected to get reps for the Bobcats in 2020.

The defensive secondary is where the most intersting questions arise, as the Bobcats must replace Hague at the safety spot and Brooks at one corner. Jarron Hampton (71 tackles, five pass breakups) returns at one safety spot after spending the 2019 season out with injury, while one of Alvin Floyd (16 tackles) or De’Vante Mitchell (20 tackles) will attempt to fill the void left by Hague. The Motley brothers, Ilyass (38 tackles, one forced fumble, one interception) and Xavior (17 tackes, one tackle-for-loss, one sack) are also set to play roles in the defensive backfield. Redshirt sophomroe Justin Burchette and redshirt junior Tariq Drake could also see some rotation at the corners.

Much like Central, Ohio also finds themselves replacing two stalwarts at the specialist positions, with kicker Louie Zervos and punter Michael Farkas both graduating. Freshman Jack Wilson, an Aussie punter from Lancefield, Victoria, is slated for punting and kickoff duties, while redshirt freshman Tristian Vandenburg beat out true freshman Noah Fortkamp for the placekicker position.


Outlook

This is a pressure-cooker situation for both teams going into Wednesday night, and pressure can result in some strange things.

CMU is on a mission to get back to Detroit in order to prove that 2019 wasn’t a fluke season, while Ohio seems well-positioned to make a run at the MAC East division, and are itching to get back to title contention for the first time since 2016. In order for either team to be able to achieve this. they absolutely have to pick up this crucial cross-division win if they have to depend on a tiebreaker.

The game is getting the ESPN treatment in the 7 p.m. weeknight window, and with how crisp and cold it’s been in Mt. Pleasant recently, we should be in for a stirring night of MAC football. These are two of the most solid, consistent and well-coached teams in the conference, and will be a delight to watch in action.

The difference will likely come down to which offensive line holds up. Both teams are replacing at least three of their players in the trenches, and with how both teams depend on balance to keep defenses off-kilter, it will be important to win that battle early. Whoever can manage to hold up in that department will likely walk out with a victory.