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2021 Mid-American Conference Football Week 3 Game Preview: Central Michigan Chippewas vs. LSU Tigers

CMU faces their second Tigers team from the SEC in three weeks, this time traveling to Death Valley for a primetime contest.

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at UCLA Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

As expected, CMU (1-1) readily handled their FCS “cupcake” game on Saturday afternoon, blanking Robert Morris by a final score of 45-0, getting on the right side of the win-loss column as they face perhaps their most formidable opponent of the 2021 season in the LSU Tigers (1-1.)

The Tigers, meanwhile, are looking around and trying to figure out if they’re going to meet their expectations this season or not. 20 months removed from their national championship in 2019, the Tigers have had a bit of a identity crisis, taking a lot of unexpected losses and not looking nearly as impervious as they once did. They took a humiliating loss to UCLA in Week 1, and rolled up McNeese State in an expected Week 2 win, so we don’t particularly know which LSU team we’re going to get.

What we do know is that Saturdays in Death Valley are already an incredibly tough assignment for any opposing team in the daytime; it’ll be a descent into the depths of the madhouse when the sun goes down. LSU has won seven straight and 56 of its last 57 games against non-conference opponents in Tiger Stadium. Central will be the next team to try their luck against the Tigers on their home soil, with LSU taking down FCS McNeese State in last Saturday’s action.

CMU will look to upset their first Power Five opponent on the road since Oklahoma State in 2016 when they travel down to Baton Rouge. It’ll be a taxing day for the Chippewas; CMU will be flying in to LSU the day of the game due to their hotel reservation being cancelled by Hurricane Ida recovery efforts mandated statewide.

So what should we expect to see on game night?


GAME NOTES

  • Time and Date: Saturday, September 19, 2021, at 7:30 p.m. Eastern time.
  • Network: SEC Network (A valid cable subscription is required for viewing.)
  • Location: Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana
  • Weather: 77 degrees, with 93 percent humidity, and isolated thunderstorms expected at kickoff, per Weather.com. Winds at 4 MPH, with a 34 percent expectation of rain.
  • Spread/Total: LSU is a 20-point favorite as of publication, per DraftKings Sportsbook.
  • All-time series: First meeting between CMU and LSU. CMU is 0-10 against SEC teams all-time, last time against Missouri on Sept. 11.

Getting to Know the (LSU) Tigers

This will be a battered and bruised Tigers team who host the Chippewas on Saturday night, with several significant contributors on both sides of the ball either out with injury or suspended.

Even so, this is still an SEC team, and cannot be taken out of consideration for a win for too long, just on their talent depth alone.

LSU will roll out backup QB Max Johnson as the starter, with Myles Brennan still recovering from injury. Johnson’s numbers are admittedly pretty good, with 132-of-223 passes for 1,560 yards, 14 TDs and only 2 interceptions in eight career starts. Max, the son of Super Bowl Champion QB Brad Johnson, is on a current four-game streak of scoring three touchdown passes or more, and is the only LSU QB to ever accomplish the feat in their first four starts.

The pass-heavy offense has plenty of weapons on the outside, with sophomore Kayshon Boutee, of New Iberia, Louisiana, being the main target. He’s currently leading the country with five touchdowns in the young season, and has hauled in 51 receptions for 706 yards and nine scores over his last five games. Beyond Boutee is a bevy of receivers who don’t have terribly remarkable numbers, with the second-leading receiver in 2021, junior Trey Palmer, sitting at 10 receptions for 77 yards and a touchdown.

LSU averages 255 yards through the air per game, utilizing underneath routes and yards-after-catch to wear down the defense. They’ll look to test CMU’s 4-2-5 defensive front with sheer talent, as they try to assess who can be contributors down the road outside of Boutee in the pass game.

The running game is still a major question mark for LSU. LSU has had major issues in run blocking, regressing mightily even from last season. They took a hit to their depth this week, with John Emrey Jr., an expected backup option with five-star credentials, was academically suspended for the rest of the year. They bring back starter Ty Davis-Price, who has 909 career yards and eight touchdowns, and true freshman Corey Kiner, who debuted with an 11 carry, 56 yard and one touchdown effort vs. McNeese State last week. The Tigers average 86.5 yards on the ground in two games this season, which places them 116th in the country, just behind the Akron Zips, which features a notoriously shallow RB room.

Under Ed Orgeron, the Tigers are 26-1 when LSU has a 100-yard rusher, but that hasn’t applied to either of their games this year, with their leading rusher struggling to reach half that number so far. They’ll hope to improve this week with an offensive line which will only miss one starter due to injury.

The mark of this LSU team so far has been on the defensive side of the ball, for better or worse. They’ve given up 22.5 points average and 306 yards allowed on average in two games this season. One concern area for LSU’s defense is the rushing attack, with 130.5 yards allowed in that aspect of the game.

The passing defense is one of the best in the country, allowing only 175.5 yards allowed per game thus far, with one of the best cornerback duos in junior (and NFL prospect) Derek Stingley Jr. and sophomore Eli Ricks combining for 11 interceptions last season. The defensive line compiled eight sacks against McNeese State last week, and lead the country with 12 sacks through two games. At least nine different Tigers have picked up sacks as well, so it’s a deep, all-around effort. Names to keep an eye on include senior end Andre Anthony and true freshman tackle Maason Smith, who have combined for 6.5 sacks this season.

If the Tigers struggle to get the ball moving on the Chips, they know they can depend on PK Cade York to kick from anywhere on the field. York, a second-team All-American in 2020, has made his last 12 field goals, including a 56-yarder last week against McNeese. He has an expected range of approximately 63 yards as well, which makes the LSU offense dangerous, even if they stall out.


Getting to Know the Chippewas

There is still a lot to learn about the Chippewas this season after two games, but if there’s something to be encouraged by, it’s that once again, they should feature one of the better offensive units in the country, especially on the ground.

CMU, as most McElwain teams usually do, feature one of the most explosive offenses in the country, with 41 of their plays from scrimmage going for 10+ yards, including 15 plays of 20+ yards and five plays for 30+ yards thus far in 2021. This will prove to be a key matchup factor vs. an LSU defense who has been gashed for explosives so far this season, with 24 plays of 10+ yards allowed, 10 plays of 20+ yards allowed and 12 plays of 30+ yards allowed.

Lew Nichols III will be looking to follow up on his career day vs. Missouri by getting the goat of another SEC team named the Tigers. Nichols rushed for 135 yards on 19 carries, averaging an incredible 7.1 yards per rush, and scoring once in Week 1. He was just as explosive in 2020, with 508 yards in 78 attempts and four touchdowns (averaging 6.5 yards per rush) as a backup change-of-pace back behind Kobe Lewis.

CMU excels in the inside zone run, a concept LSU struggled with against UCLA, and have not one, but five running backs they trust to tote the rock between the gaps the offensive line generates.

Darius Bracy, who started his CMU career as a cornerback and is a former option HS QB, has proven effective as the new change-of-pace back, breaking out several explosive runs and showing to be a capable pass catcher as well, with 94 yards on eight carries and 42 yards on two receptions in 2021. He’ll also get looks at Wildcat QB, along with Nichols. True freshmen backs Marion Lukes (10 rush, 59 yards; three receptions, 27 yards), De’Jevion “DJ” Stephney (nine rushes, 81 yards) and Myles Bailey (seven rushes, 34 yards) are also options for CMU to bring out if need be as well.

The passing game will once again be examined with a magnifying glass, as there’s still some questions there. Jacob Sirmon is the starter for Central, with the former five-star QB prospect going 35-of-61 for 404 yards and four touchdowns, with two interceptions in 2021. He looked every part of someone who hadn’t started a game for several years vs. Missouri, but rebounded with an economical performance against Robert Morris. He’ll have some accuracy issues, but the arm strength is not a question, as his deep ball is as beautiful as they come.

Daniel Richardson, the 2020 starter for CMU, is also still a viable option, throwing two touchdowns in the 2021 campaign, including a teardrop six-yarder to bring the Chips within a score of the Mizzou Tigers on a critical third-and-goal situation cold off the bench.

JaCorey Sullivan has been the star of the show on the outside, with the super-senior receiver from Muskegon, Michigan, with 10 receptions for 136 yards and three touchdowns in 2021. A physical receiver on the outside, Sullivan is known for his big-play ability on deep balls, with an average reception of 13.6 yards, which is in line with his career average. Fellow Muskegonite Kalil Pimpleton does it all for CMU, seeing time at WR, RB, QB and KR/PR, and has been a marked man for much of 2021, currently sitting at six receptions for 65 yards, and four rushes for 36 yards and a score. CMU will need Pimpleton to evade the LSU defense for them to have a decent chance at an upset.

Dallas Dixon has been a reliable slot option since transferring in from D-II Northern Michigan last season, and currently has 10 receptions for 156 yards and a touchdown, leading the Chippewas receiving room in receptions and yards. Fellow transfers Remi Simmons and Lavar Gumms are still working their way into the offense, and will hope to prove their worth against one of the stingiest pass defenses in the country.

Defensively, CMU converted from a standard 4-3 defense to a 4-2-5 look in the off-season due to the depth of options in the safety room. This places a lot of emphasis on two-time first-team All-MAC backer Troy Brown Jr. and George Douglas, one of the best run-stopping duos in the MAC, to patrol the middle of the defense to plug in gaps in the front seven. Joining them at the slot safety spot is Devonni Reed (10 tackles, two tackles-for-loss), another run-focused safety.

Brown will be the focus of the LSU coaching staff, as the former safety is an all-around backer, who possess both sideline-to-sideline speed to stop perimeter and interior runs and the coverage skills to neutralize crossing routes, something which is key to LSU’s offensive gameplan. He had a crucial fourth-down pass break-up vs. Mizzou, which LSU surely will have an eye on.

The defensive line options are absolutely scary if you’re an LSU fan concerned about the offensive line’s recent inability to produce holes for the running back. CMU has combined for 20 tackles-for-loss over 10 games, with 11 players notching at least one.

Defensive end and MAC co-defensive player of the year Troy Hairston, listed at five-foot-eleven, 245 lbs., plays a lot larger than his size, leading the MAC with 5.5 sacks and 12 tackles-for-loss in the six-game season in 2020 in his first full year at the position after converting from linebacker. Fellow backer-to-end convert Amir Siddiq has 3.5 tackles for loss, as does Valdosta State transfer Thomas Incoom, with both leading the Chips in the statistic. Other depth options inclulde LaQuan Johnson (two tackles-for-loss) and Austin Peay transfer John Wesley Whiteside (one sack), both of whom were former starters in previous seasons.

CMU is a Top 25 program in the pass game at current, allowing only two touchdowns and 312 total yards (for an average of 156 yards per game.) LSU will easily be their biggest test, as the Tigers will look to incorporate Kayshon Boutte early and often against a defensive backfield which still needs time to gel after a number of transfers.

Gage Kreski, Willie Reid and Alonzo McCoy will have their hands full in preventing the deep ball, while former Independence [KS] CC product Dishon McNary will likely be faced with the unenviable task of battling Boutee.

CMU gave up over 200 yards on the ground to Missouri, which isn’t terribly encouraging, and gave up about 83 yards against a depleted Robert Morris team without its leading rusher, so there’s some concern there if LSU can figure out a way to exploit it, but this is otherwise one of the more solid defenses in the country from a talent standpoint.

Marshall Meeder, like fellow kicker Cade York, has proven to be as effective as they come, having converted on 10-of-11 field goals in his young career, with a career-long from 51 yards out vs. Mizzout in Week 1 and an expected range of about 55 yards.


Prediction

It’s certainly refreshing to see LSU fans scared of a Group of Five team (or in a few cases, eagerly begging for one to win) ahead of a money game matchup set to be under the lights. It warms the cockles of this jaded mid-major football fan’s heart that the team they’re scared of also happens to be the one I have cheered for with all my might for a decade.

I think this is a make-or-break week already for LSU. This is their final non-con game before the start of the SEC schedule and there’s still so many questions for them to answer. Their coaching staff is under severe fire for a litany of reasons, and the talent on the roster has simply underperformed, despite gaudy numbers.

There’s a chance an upset could actually happen too; Jim McElwain’s roster construction certainly looks like a team which could take on an SEC team (and has at least once this season.) If LSU comes into the game assuming their talent will get them by, it’s going to be dangerously close.

I think CMU will, at the least, cover the spread in this game. Many LSU experts even feel that the Tigers will be unable to do the same, which gives me confidence to reasonably say it’s possible.