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What We Learned: Takeaways from Central Michigan’s 31-27 win vs. FIU

What’s old is new again, as Daniel Richardson earns back the starting QB role.

James H. Jimenez

It was a tale of two games for Central Michigan on Saturday, as the Chippewas found themselves down early on against a 1-2 FIU team who was looking to catch CMU sleeping at home.

They did just that, forcing CMU into a 27-10 hole at the end of three quarters of play. It was the fourth quarter when the pace of the game changed, as the CMU offense posted 21 unanswered points and a game-saving interception to wipe away a 17-point Panthers lead and take home a win to move to 2-2.

It can’t be denied there were lessons learned from this game, both good and bad, which will affect the direction of the team moving forward.

The QB competition is over

Throughout the offseason, CMU coaches made sure to tell media that their quarterback competition was “wide open” with multiple quarterbacks. The narrative continued into the first week of the season, as coaches were mum on revealing who it was that would be QB1, even listing three starters on the depth chart.

But sure enough, as predicted, Washington transfer Jacob Sirmon trotted out as the starter vs. Mizzou, Robert Morris and LSU. Sirmon, a former five-star prospect, has a cannon arm and coaches talked up his maturity and leadership. But it was evident the team simply did not mesh with him and vice versa, as Sirmon’s passing numbers were, to put it charitably, middling, completing only 59 percent of his yards, and going over 200 yards just once, going 22-of-45 for 295 yards. In the other three games, Sirmon reached 110 yards, 156 yards and 121 yards. That is simply unacceptable for an FBS QB, especially one so highly harolded out of high school.

Sirmon’s main issues stemmed to his paranoia, staring down receivers or holding onto the ball too long, which resulted in four interceptions which killed a handful of opportune drives against both Mizzou and LSU, as well as several sacks when protection couldn’t hold up. Sirmon often looked lost and frustrated in those games, chucking throws into clear double and triple coverage.

In the FIU game, Sirmon had a 4.5 yards per completion average in the game, a failed fourth-down conversion pass which was overthrown in the endzone and another drive-killing interception inside positive territory.

This was in contrast to Daniel Richardson, the 2020 starter, who was called up out of the bullpen to throw a TD against Mizzou, led a quick touchdown drive against Robert Morris on his only series of the game and then came in to replace Sirmon against FIU, leading a three-touchdown rally to win the game.

It wasn’t just the statistics that favored Richardson. He also passed the eye test, as Richardson showed chemistry with all his receivers (Kalil Pimpleton, especially, had a great second-half performance), showed a great command of the up-tempo passing offense CMU wants to employ, and wasn’t afraid to take high-reward plays when they showed themselves.

The public narrative may have been that Sirmon that was going to be QB1 until further notice, but when push came to shove, it’s clear the staff realized they had to change over to win the game, and in that sense, the QB competition is no longer on.

“Run the damn ball” applies to CMU, too

The focus of the CMU offense under Sirmon was to pass the ball downfield by utilizing his arm talent for ball control purposes to compliment a running attack which was expected to wear down the defense.

However, under Sirmon, CMU found themselves having to rely on passes more and more due to the amount of turnovers he was causing, which limited the ability of Lew Nichols and friends to be able to run the ball effectively.

A change in quarterback could also open up the run game, as Richardson’s deep arm forced the FIU defense to respect the threat of the run. Nichols feasted against FIU, posting 152 yards on 26 carries for the Chips after going only 18 yards against LSU the previous week. CMU is at their most lethal when they can run the ball downfield; they were able to keep pace vs. Missouri in part because of Nichols’ 135 yards and a touchdown (complimented by several nice Darius Bracy long runs.)

CMU is traditionally a Top 25 team in rushing offense, so opponents will have to respect that fact, with Nichols and a compliment of freshmen backs who the staff believe will be key contributors down the road, including Marion Lukes, De’Javion Stephney and Myles Bailey, all expected to tote the rock.

The injury bug is starting to become a real issue

CMU lost backup RB Darius Bracy to an injury which will last several weeks after getting bowled over by Derek Stingley Jr. on a blown screen, and OG Danny Motowski “probably done for good” with a back injury suffered vs. FIU, which suddenly puts CMU in an even further hole depth-wise.

Prior to the season, CMU lost veterans RB Kobe Lewis and WR Drayton Law for the year, and OT Derek Smith to the transfer portal. Add in these two injuries, and it’s starting to get a bit concerning.

CMU had to pull in two transfer receivers to make up numbers in fall camps in Lavar Gumms and Remi Simmons, who are still getting integrated, and recently brought on a walk-on receiver who started the season as an equipment manager.

CMU also had been working a rotation at both guard spots, and may now reconsider the strategy with the loss of Motowski. Deiyantei Powell-Woods and Tyden Ferris, two sophomores, will occupy their starting roles, which forces freshmen to back up at all five line positions.

Hell, the defensive secondary suffered another setback, with their top corner Dishon McNary getting injured celebrating an interception which was ultimately called incomplete, which means the secondary will now start two freshmen on the corners.

This is a talented team, but it’s also a young one, and if they take a few more beatings, it’ll be dangerous territory for CMU’s division title hopes.

The pass defense is getting picked on still

CMU came into 2021 as a bottom 10 pass defense, and it was something the staff emphasized when teaching technique and making schematic adjustments.

The biggest adjustment was switching from a 4-3 defense to a 4-2-5 defense, allowing CMU to employ three safeties to shore up their coverage. This has done a few things: it’s made CMU faster on defense, allowing it to damn the torpedoes on running plays, while shoring up more coverage to force the defense to respect them.

It’s certainly worked in the first department. CMU forced six three-and-outs, and kept FIU to just 3-of-14 overall on third-down conversions, thanks to a ferocious pass and run rush in the front seven. They haven’t allowed a rusher to gain over 80 yards in three of the four games this season, with only Missouri’s Tyler Badie gaining over 100.

The second department, however, is still to be determined. CMU allowed two receivers to gain over 170 yards in Tyrese Chambers and Bryce Singleton, and FIU accomplished this by forcing the outside coverage to play on an island, especially on play action. They found a scapegoat in freshman Donte Kent, who was consistently beaten in one-on-one situations in man coverage and was often found to be without safety help. Kent has been a bit of a bugbear all year, with teams consistently putting their best receivers on him.

(Though credit where it’s due, Kent got the ultimate last laugh with a third-down pass break-up and a game-sealing interceptionin the final minutes to put CMU in position to win the game.)

The situation gets more dire now, as Daedae Hill, another freshman, will have to play for Dishon McNary (ankle) who is out for an unknown amount of time. They’ll have to face a first-team all-MAC receiver for their first assignment in Miami’s Jack Sorenson.

Special teams are up-and-down

The special teams have been very intriguing this year. At their best, CMU’s special teams have done a great job giving the defense a very favorable position on punts. Luke Elzinga has especially been a star, continuing his great 2020 form with a 44.65 net yard average over 17 punts, with five punts of 50+ yards and nine inside the 20-yard line, with only one touchback.

Marshall Meeder had an off day, however, on Saturday, with two missed field goals on the windier side of the field from about 45 yards out on both attempts. He wound up going 1-of-3 on the day, and it’s his third missed field goal at home, which is a bizarre outlier of a stat for someone who made all his field goal attempts in 2020. In fact, home field might not be an advantage for Meeder; dating back to 2020, he’s only kicked one field goal in three games at Kelly/Shorts in 2020, and is 8-of-8 on his road attempts.

This will be something to monitor moving forward.