Sometime in life, the best moments are spontaneous.
When COVID problems for Boise State and Miami [FL] forced their respective bowl committees to scramble for new opponents over the weekend, it presented a unique opportunity, and on Monday evening, a spontaneous moment was created, as the new-look Sun Bowl was officially announced, giving both teams just over 80 or so hours of preparation for one another.
On Friday afternoon, the Central Michigan Chippewas (9-4, 6-2 MAC) and the Washington State Cougars (7-6, 5-3 PAC-12) met in El Paso, Texas, a position neither team expected to be in as recently as Monday morning, and ended up providing one of the most exciting bowl games of the 2021 postseason in a wild, back-and-forth event born of necessity, ending in what would turn out to be a 24-21 victory for the Chippewas in the 88th annual Sun Bowl.
CMU controlled the tempo from the start, picking up four straight three-and-outs on defense over the first and second quarters on Wazzu’s first four drives, with the lone first down earned by penalty.
The Chippewas scored 13 points in the first quarter, with Marshall Meeder converting on kicks from 49 and 52 yards out respectively to get CMU on the board to start the game, with Lew Nichols III picking up a one-yard run on a drive gifted to CMU’s offense by a kickoff return fumble recovered by linebacker Kumehnnu Gwilly to push the margin to 13-0 in the first quarter, then tacked on another touchdown courtesy of TE Joel Wilson with 1:48 remaining in the half, and a Kalil Pimpleton reception for a two-point conversion to make the score 21-0 at halftime.
The third quarter started off much the same for the CMU defense, which once again forced another three-and-out courtesy of a nine-yard Troy Hairston III sack on backup QB Victor Gabalis, who replaced the injured Jayden de Paula at the halftime break.
The offense took the next possession all the way to the Wazzu two-yard line on two back-to-back 10+ yard receptions from JaCorey Sullivan and a facemask penalty, but on second-and-goal from the five-yard line, Daniel Richardson and Lew Nichols botched the handoff exchange on a high snap, resulting in a fumble, recovered by linebacker Jahad Woods.
After yet another three-and-out forced by the defense, CMU possessed the ball at the Wazzu 44-yard line, eventually stalling out on a four-play drive at the 26-yard line. Marshall Meeder came on for his third field goal of the day, but this time, missed wide left with a kick picked up by the wind to keep the score at 21-0 CMU.
Wazzu converted their first third-down play of the evening on a 55-yard pass from Victor Gabalis to Lincoln Victor on the next drive to set up the Cougars at the Chippewa 16-yard line. The CMU defense, as it had all day, forced a third-down stop by forcing a hurried pass through the endzone, but on fourth down, Troy Hairston committed a roughing the passer penalty on what was another successful stop to give the Cougs new life.
WR Travell Harris would take the next snap on a Wildcat run look left for a five-yard score to get Wazzu on the board down 21-7 to CMU with 4:02 remaining in the third quarter.
Disaster struck— and the intrigue began— just a play later for the leading Chippewas, as Travion Brown picked off a bewildering Daniel Richardson pass attempt on a flat route to FB Hunter Buczkowski, gifting the Cougars another potential scoring opportunity.
They would cash in on the turnover six plays later on a Gabalis pass to De’Zhaun Stribling from five yards out on fourth-and-goal after three straight incompletions to cut the gap to just one score at 21-14, Central advantage.
CMU would take the next six minutes of game clock in response to set up what was ultimately a Marshall Meeder kick attempt from 25 yards out. The kick malfunctioned, with the high snap affecting the follow-through, resulting in a block by defensive end Ron Stone Jr. for Wazzu.
The Cougs found themselves in a fourth-and-one situation with just under 11 minutes remaining at their own 32, and opted to go for it, with Nakia Watson getting stopped at the line of scrimmage by Troy Brown to force the turnover-on-downs.
CMU converted the turnover into points just under a minute or so later, with Marshall Meeder trotting on for a 43-yard try, which he sunk in to extend the lead to 24-14 in favor of CMU.
Two possessions later, Wazzu once again found the endzone, with a 13-yard pass from Gabalis to Lincoln Victor, aided in part by a defensive pass interference penalty on the third-down play prior, to pull the score to 24-21 CMU with 3:13 remaining in the game.
CMU wound up committing a delay-of-game on the first play from scrimmage, pushing the drive back to their own 20-yard line, eventually resulting in a three-and-out which burned out all three of Wazzu’s timeouts, taking only 32 seconds off the clock. Luke Elzinga’s punt would pin the Cougs down at their own 14-yard line for what would be the final drive of the game.
The Cougs picked up five yards on a Gabalis-to-Donovan Ollie reception before throwing two incompletions to force fourth-and-five from their own 19-yard line.
Gabalis snapped the ball, found slot receiver Joey Hobert in front of the sticks, and threw it in his direction. Hobert caught the underthrown ball, but had to go behind the line-to-gain to do so, allowing Troy Brown to tackle him short. The follow-up review of the play found Hobert’s effort less than a foot short, ensuring the CMU victory.
It wasn’t the greatest day for Daniel Richardson, but he got the job done, finishing 15-of-28 for 170 yards, a touchdown and an interception. JaCorey Sullivan led the Chippewa receivers with five receptions for 50 yards, while Joel Wilson collected the lone touchdown to compliment three receptions for 41 yards and Kalil Pimpleton picked up four receptions for 30 yards.
Lew Nichols led the Chippewa offensive effort, with 28 attempts for 120 yards for one touchdown on the ground, and two receptions for 38 yards receiving, numbers picked up despite a reworked offensive line, as tackles Bernhard Raimann and Luke Goedeke both opted-out prior to the game.
Marshall Meeder was 3-of-5 on field goal attempts, good from 49, 52 and 43 yards, while missing from 44 and blocked on a 25-yard attempt. Luke Elzinga punted seven times for 309 net yards, with five punts landing inside the 20-yard line and two punts of 50+ yards.
Troy Brown led all tacklers with 11 stops, including 2.5 tackles-for-loss, a sack and a QB hit on the day. Fellow linebacker Kyle Moretti showed up big on the day as well, with the true freshman picking up eight tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss and a pass break-up. Thomas Incoom and Troy Hairston each had four tackles and 1.5 sacks, while John Wesley Whiteside had one sack and two tackles-for-loss.
Washington State saw some struggles on the offensive side, with both tackles opting out, third-string back Nakia Watson having to occupy the majority of carries, and leading receiver Calvin Jackson Jr. (three receptions, 32 yards) and starting QB Jayden de Laura (9-of-19, 45 yards) injured early in the game.
Victor Gabalis, called into action after backup QB Jarrett Guarantano opted out, held up admirably, completing 11-of-23 passes for 177 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions. Lincoln Victor led all receivers with 85 yards and a touchdown on four receptions, while D’zhaun Stribling caught the other score for Wazzu. RB Nakia Watson ran for 58 yards on 15 carries, with Stribling collecting the lone rushing touchdown.
Wazzu employed two punters on the day, with Nick Haberer punting seven times for a net 202 yards, with two punts inside the 20, and a long of 56 yards, while Andrew Boyle punted twice for 40 yards, with one landing inside the 20. They attempted no field goals.
Justus Rogers led the Cougars with 10 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss and a QB hit, while defensive back Armani Marsh had nine tackles. Tyrone Hill was tied for first with 2.5 tackles-for-loss, while linebacker Travion Brown notched the team’s lone interception and contributed five tackles.
The victory is a pretty feather in the cap for Central Michigan and their MAC brethren, setting a number of team and conference standards.
The victory was CMU’s first bowl win since the 2012 Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl vs. Western Kentucky, as well as the program’s first season ending in nine wins or above since 2009’s 12-2 campaign. For the MAC, it’s the conference’s first-ever win over an opponent from the PAC-12 after previously going 0-21, and the conference’s first win over a Power Five team in a bowl game since Bowling Green’s 2003 victory over Northwestern in the Motor City Bowl.
The MAC finishes 3-5 overall in the postseason, while the PAC-12 drops to 0-4, with the Rose Bowl game between Ohio State and Utah remaining.