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2021 Sun Bowl Game Preview: Central Michigan Chippewas vs. Washington State Cougars

The Chippewas, who nearly saw their postseason end on Monday afternoon, instead find themselves get ready to face a Power 5 opponent on national TV Friday.

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 17 Central Michigan at Ball State Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s been a wild week in the West for the Central Michigan Chippewas (8-4, 6-2 MAC), as they found themselves in the center of one of the most intriguing storylines to ever come out of the bowl season on Monday afternoon, going from a potentially season-ending cancellation due to Boise State’s COVID situation, to replacing Miami [FL] in one of the most prestigious games on the college football calendar in just over a five-hour period.

Now, with the national broadcast television lights thrust upon them for the first time since their 1974 national championship vs. Delaware in the Camellia Bowl aired on ABC, they get set to take on the Washington State Cougars (7-5, 5-3 PAC-12) in the historic Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, on Friday, Dec. 31st.


Game Notes

  • Time and Date: Friday, December 31st, at 12 p.m. Eastern time
  • Network/Streaming: CBS (television); CBS Sports App (mobile; requires cable subscription for log-in); Paramount+ (streaming.) Viacom is offering a one-month free trial of Paramount+ (which ends Jan, 3, 2022) as well as 25 percent off a full subscription for students.
  • Audio/Internet: For the Washington State radio feed featuring Matt Chazanow (play-by-play) and Alex Brink (color), visit 104.3 KHTR-FM. For the Central Michigan radio feed featuring Adam Jaksa (play-by-play) and Brock Guttierez (color), visit 98.5 WUPS-FM.
  • Location: The Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.
  • Weather: 56 degrees and raining at kickoff, with 6 MPH winds set to increase throughout the day, per Weather.com. A 69 percent chance of precipitation at noon, steadily decreasing through the day.
  • Last Meeting: This will be the first-ever meeting between CMU and Washington State.

When Central has the ball

The conversation about the CMU offense begins with its dominant rushing attack, led by none other than the country’s leading rusher Lew Nichols III.

Nichols, who was supposed to be the backup RB to Kobe Lewis (knee injury) this season, has been a revelation in 2021, amassing 1,710 yards and 15 touchdowns on 311 carries, while also picking up 38 receptions for 300 yards and two touchdowns.

Nichols was especially deadly in conference play, rushing for no less than 136 yards in seven of their eight MAC games, including two-straight 200+ yard performances against Kent State and Ball State in weeknight #MACtion to keep CMU’s divisional hopes alive.

The passing offense is nothing to sneeze at either, with three 2021 all-MAC receivers in Kalil Pimpleton (who was also named MAC Special Teams Player of the Year), JaCorey Sullivan and Dallas Dixon all receiving passes from one of the top quarterbacks in the MAC in Daniel Richardson.

Pimpleton is especially dangerous, capable of lining up in five positions on the field—including Wildcat QB and as a kick/punt returner. Pimpleton has collected 1,250 total yards on offense, with eight total touchdowns (four receiving, two rushing, two punt returns.) Sullivan, his teammate dating back to Muskegon [MI] HS days, has also been a reliable outside target, with 42 receptions for 604 yards and a team-high 10 touchdowns, while Dixon, a former Northern Michigan Wildcat, is second on the team list with 44 receptions, 595 yards and eight touchdowns, respectively.

Richardson took over the starting QB duties from Washington transfer Jacob Sirmon— who has since transferred to Northern Colorado— in Week 4 vs. FIU, led a double-digit comeback to win and went on to put up one of the most effective seasons by a MAC QB in the remaining seven games, finishing the regular season with 2,424 yards, 23 touchdowns and five interceptions on a 61.5 percent completion rate. With Sirmon gone, true freshman Tyler Pape is the listed backup for this week’s bowl game.

Helping the offense along is their offensive line, which features two legitimate NFL Draft prospects in bookend tackles Bernhard Raimann and Luke Goedeke— who were named first-team all-MAC at their positions in 2021.

Raimann, an Austrian national, was a former tight end who made the conversion to tackle in 2020 due to roster needs and has prospered. His excellent bend and clean power in the rush game makes him an intriguing prospect, with Pro Football Focus mocking Raimann in the last first round, while other mocks see him as a potential Day 2 option. Goedeke, a late-round prospect with rising potential, is a technician with his hands and upper body who has held his own against some tough assignments. Both Raimann and Goedeke will appear in the Senior Bowl, making this game their formal introduction to the country at large.

This is a team which will be run-first and take their chances on deep balls down the field when the opportunity strikes. The offense averages 451.9 yards per game, balanced between 181.8 rushing yards and 270 passing yards on average, with an impressive 6.1 yards per play. While the team isn’t terribly efficient on third-down (39 percent), they are decent at converting on fourth-down, converting 57 percent of the time.

The Chippewas will be challenged by a stout Cougars defense which heated up as the season progressed. The Cougs are a dangerous havoc team, coming in fourth-best in the country with 27 takeaways, including 14 interceptions and 13 fumble recoveries. They’re also efficient in bend-don’t-break defense, especially in the redzone, leading the PAC-12 with a 34-of-46 (73 percent) scoring conversion rate.

The Cougs are led defensively by PAC-12 all-Honorable Mention linebacker Jahad Woods and all-first team PAC-12 edge rusher Ron Stone Jr., two of the steadier veteran presences on the team.

Woods’ 100 tackles lead the team, and he is currently the PAC-12’s leading active tackler as well, with his 419 career tackles listed fourth-best all-time in Wazzu history. Stone has been a breakout candidate in 2021, with 59 tackles, while leading the team with 11.5 tackles-for-loss and five sacks for the Cougs.

There are nine players notching at least one interception, with defensive back Armani Marsh (three) and linebacker Justus Rodgers (two) leading the team respectively. Marsh (62 tackles) and Rodgers (64 tackles) also lead the team with four pass breakups and have two forced fumbles apiece. Fellow defensive backs Derrick Langford (39 tackles, two interceptions, three pass breakups, three forced fumbles) and Jaylen Watson (31 tackles, two interceptions, three pass breakups, four fumble recoveries) have also been major contributors to the Wazzu defensive effort with disciplined play.

For all the defensive talent and turnover luck, there are some notable struggle spots for the Cougs defense, most notably in rush defense, where they’ve allowed an average of 161.9 yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground.

They’ll also be tested by a fairly robust offense in the Chippewas, who average 33 points per game. So far in 2021, the Cougs have allowed a respectable 24.5 points per game; but in their losses, they struggled against dynamic offenses, including Utah State, Utah, BYU and USC, with several of those losses lost by late touchdowns and/or by one score. CMU will rival at least Utah State in talent, and that could make things uncomfortable.


When Washington State has the ball

Washington State has undergone a slight change of philosophy in the transition from Nick Rolovich’s air raid to Jake Dickert’s run-and-shoot, with a noticeable improvement in the final month of the season, going 3-1 while scoring no less than 24 points, and collecting several multiple-score wins against Arizona, Arizona State and Washington.

Jayden de Laura leads the aerial attack from the quarterback position, with 2,751 yards, 23 touchdowns and nine interceptions on 64.3 percent completion rating. de Laura is also a running threat, third-best on the team with 208 yards gained on 43 carries for three touchdowns. The native Hawai’ian’s efforts in 2021 earned him a finalist spot for Polynesian Player of the Year, and won him PAC-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year award. Former Tennessee QB Jarrett Guarantano is the backup at Wazzu, with 304 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions on the season.

As expected of a former air raid squad, the Cougs have a litany of receiving options. Former Last Chance U star Calvin Jackson Jr., highlights the attack with 63 receptions for 955 yards and seven touchdowns, while second-team all-PAC-12 receiver Travell Harris leads the Cougs in receptions (73) and touchdowns (nine), while picking up 801 yards. Third receiver De’zhaun Stribling (42, 458 yards, four touchdowns) will also prove an outlet for de Laura to depend upon.

With the introduction of run-and-shoot elements, the running game has also become more of a factor for the Cougs. All-PAC-12 Honorable Mention “superback” Max Borghi is the focal point of the backfield, with 880 yards and 12 touchdowns on 160 carries in 2021, while also collecting 16 passes for 156 yards. He will be joined in the backfield by former Wisconsin back Nakia Watson (53 carries, 191 yards, three touchdowns in 2020; 19 carries, 52 yards in 2021) due to an undisclosed injury to the usual backup RB Deon McIntosh (111 carries, 532 yards, three touchdowns) announced on Wednesday afternoon.

The offensive line will be missing a key piece on their offensive line, however, as starting tackle Liam Ryan, their most experienced tackle, will be out of the game due to surgery on an undisclosed injury. This will be something to watch moving forward, as CMU has one of the more furious pass rushing attacks at the end positions.

Typically, the Cougs average about 390 yards per game, gaining 259.8 yards thorough the air and 130.3 yards on the ground, good enough for 43 total touchdowns and an impressive 5.9 yards per play average. Wazzu is also efficient on clutch down conversions, converting 42 percent of the time on both third-and-fourth downs in 2021. The Cougs are also fairly disciplined with turnovers, with de Laura only tossing nine interceptions and the team losing only four fumbles in 12 games for a +10 turnover margin (when interceptions from other QBs are factored.)

Safeties Gage Kreski (80 tackles, six tackles-for-loss, one sack, one interception) and Devonni Reed (73 tackles, 3.5 tackles-for-loss, one sack, two interceptions) are tops on the tackle charts for the Chippewas, with veteran linebacker Troy Brown enduring two missed games due to injury and a change in defensive scheme to place third on the team with 54 tackles, while also picking up 4.5 tackles-for-loss, one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.

The core of the defensive effort is along the line, with 2020 MAC Defensive Player of the Year and back-to-back first-team all-MAC defensive end Troy Hairston III leading the charge.

Hairston followed up on his breakout campaign with another stellar 2021 performance, picking up 50 tackles, 13.5 tackles-for-loss, six sacks, five QB hits and a forced fumble. Valdosta State transfer Thomas Incoom (24 tackles, seven tackles-for-loss, 2.5 sacks, five QB hits) will likely fill in on the other edge position, as former starter Amir Siddiq (36 tackles, 11 tackles-for-loss, 4.5 sacks) entered the transfer portal at the conclusion of the season. The interior is occupied by Jacques Bristol (35 tackles, seven tackles-for-loss, five sacks), Buffalo transfer Tyrece Woods (18 tackles, four tackles-for-loss, three sacks) and pass-rush specialist John Wesley Whiteside (five tackles-for-loss, five sacks.)

The secondary, which is five-deep in the Chips’ 4-2-5 look, finally seems to be settled after an endless rotation in the first half of the season, with COVID freshman Donte Kent emerging as the Chippewas’ primary coverage corner. After some initial struggles, Kent showed flashes of brilliance down the stretch, finishing the regular season with 54 tackles, 14 pass break-ups, a fumble recovery and an interception (which sealed a CMU victory.) Alongside him is converted safety Rollian Sturkey and his 35 tackles and four pass-breakups, who settled into a corner role after the injury of Dishon McNary necessitated some shuffling of defensive backs. COVID freshman DaeDae Hill offers CMU a reliable option at corner as well, with excellent blitzing instinct and a penchant for hard—but clean— hits.

As a unit, CMU’s defense has allowed an average of 26 points per game in 2021, with some slightly concerning fourth-down numbers (allowing exactly 50 percent of tries through) balanced out by being amongst the top teams at getting third-down stops, where opponents average just 32 percent. The redzone defense is susceptible, with 32-of-37 opposing trips resulting in scores, with 22 of successful trips turning into touchdowns (as compared to 28-of-46 for Wazzu.)

Where CMU finds its most success is by forcing unfavorable down-and-distance using backfield penetration while allowing the secondary to cover downfield. Wazzu will likely force the issue early with their two all-PAC-12 second-team receivers early to test a relatively young corner room and limit the front seven’s ability to affect the game.


Prediction

The more you read into the numbers between these two schools, the more fascinating it becomes, as the schools (on paper) match up fairly respectfully with one another.

Ultimately, the story of this game will come down to which team is able to play to what they do best. Will Wazzu’s fierce defense be able to contain Central’s multi-faceted offensive attack? Can CMU’s defensive front get to Jaylen de Laura, et al, and limit their ability to put up points? Which of the respective lines will be able to assert their dominace early and often? Can Jake Dickert and Jim McElwain make the proper adjustments when the time comes?

With just over 81 hours of preparation for both sides coming into the game, it will truly come down to the more disciplined and motivated squad.

The spread for this game has Wazzu favored by 7.5 points, with an over/under of 57.5 per DraftKings, which makes sense for Vegas. Wazzu should be a favorite by their status as a Power 5 team alone, especially against a MAC team playing on short notice.

However, I wouldn’t be surprised if the game is uncomfortably close for a good while. The Sun Bowl is known for some strange performances in its illustrious past due to its unusual 10 a.m. Mountain Time Zone start, and given the circumstances and weather, we could be screaming towards an under by a narrow margin.