Generally, an FCS matchup early in the season doesn’t afford a lot of opportunities to learn about the team who is hosting it.
The idea is that you welcome in a lesser team, get the new students in the stands all nice and invested with promotional giveaways, and do the basics en route to an easy victory, so ideally, you aren’t trying to learn too much from a game such as this.
But that isn’t to say that Saturday was a walk in the park. There were a number of areas which CMU needed to improve upon from last week, and the return of Jim McElwain meant a potentially different approach to the game from what Tim Skipper may have done in Missouri.
We go over a few of the things that could be positively taken away from Saturday’s action:
CMU’s #1 QB is Jacob Sirmon, until he isn’t
Going into the Mizzou game last week, the major question was who was going to be the man under center. The depth chart cited three potential starters, including Washington transfer Jacob Sirmon, 2020 starter Daniel Richardson and true freshman Tyler Pape.
As many expected, the mystery was a smokescreen, as the former five-star QB prospect won the job. He looked the part of a man who hadn’t thrown a competitive pass in four years at times, throwing two inopportune interceptions to kill Chippewa drives, but finishing the day going 22-of-45 for 295 yards and a touchdown.
The coaching staff praises Sirmon’s poise, maturity and leadership under center, and he has the best arm of anyone on the roster. The speed on the tosses are extremely apparent, even if the accuracy hasn’t quite found its way back yet. The potential is definitely there, for certain. Everything CMU has said and done has asserted that Sirmon is the man at QB1.
So it’s interesting to note that Sirmon isn’t the sole QB to get playing time in both contests in 2021. Daniel Richardson came in cold off the bench for one play in Week 1, throwing for a game-changing touchdown. Against Robert Morris, Richardson took a handful of drives from Sirmon, going 3-of-7 for 83 yards and a touchdown, with no interceptions. On the three completions, Richardson showed no hesitation to go across the middle, showing great chemistry with the receivers (likely a leftover from starting four games last year.) It’s hard to tell yet if this is part of a package meant for Richardson, or if it’s the coaching staff still trying to let him audition for a job, but it’s certainly curious.
CMU’s defensive line didn’t get into the backfield as much as expected
It was a day out in the park for the CMU defense, as they forced 11 punts on the day, and only gave up one third-down conversion. The defense also pitched a shutout for the first time since 2013, when they blanked UMass 44-0 at home.
The run-heavy Colonials had nowhere to go, managing only 109 yards on the day against CMU, with only 13 yards through the air.
But for all the success CMU had being able to get stops, there wasn’t a lot of havoc. Whether that was by design to save their true ferocity for LSU this week, or whether it was actually a struggle is also hard to tell, but getting zero sacks and only four tackles-for-loss against an offensive line and tight end group ravaged by COVID concerns is something you can’t help but look at with some concern.
CMU’s defensive front struggled to get to the QB against Mizzou in Week 2 as well, only “getting home” twice against the Tigers. The silver lining says “hey, they managed 13 tackles-for-loss against an SEC team”, and that is indeed good. But only getting two sacks in two games isn’t going to help the defense be able to cover the pass downfield. Getting zero against a QB who passed for 13 total yards is especially an embarrassment.
CMU was one of the worst pass defenses by most every metric in 2020, and getting a good pass rush together will be a major help to improving those numbers. There’s work to be done in this department, so a CMU fan can only hope that it’s merely a case of shaking off the rust.
CMU didn’t hesitate to get aggressive at points
Jim McElwain made his 2021 debut this weekend after getting emergency surgery for appendicitis last week, and made his presence felt immediately.
Early in the game, CMU recognized they had a talent advantage and went for it on fourth down not once, but twice deep inside RMU’s redzone, converting once. They could have done so twice were it not for the running back tripping short of the line to gain. Regardless, just the fact that CMU went for it shows they’re willing to access the game situation to see if going for fourth down is worth it for them.
CMU also didn’t hesitate to yank the chains a bit, deviating from the deliberate, run-heavy look under Sirmon to a hurry-up quick pass offense under Richardson when they felt there was an exploitable matchup. CMU even made some wrinkles to their Wildcat system, incorporating some new motions and plays, as Darius Bracy (a former high school option QB), Kalil Pimpleton and Lew Nichols all got distinctly different packages.
If there’s one thing that Jim McElwain wants to do, it’s to be aggressive, explosive and to get the jump early on the opponent. If you wanted to see what that looked like, the Robert Morris game had all of that in a tidy package.
I’m interested in whether McElwain sticks to his guns on these various adjustments or if something is tweaked as the season goes on.