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What We Learned from Central Michigan’s 28-21 win over Akron

It was ugly. It was sloppy. But it was a win, and sometimes, that’s all that is necessary in a game like this.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 24 Central Michigan at Penn State Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Central Michigan (2-5, 1-2 MAC West) and Akron (1-6, 0-3 MAC East) played a contest on Saturday which could be charitably be described as a back-and-forth affair which took until the final minutes to decide in full.

It took a slip-up for a game-winning opportunity to present itself, with CMU defensive end Thomas Incoom scooping up a botched run-pass option exchange for a touchdown, the first time a turnover had resulted in points in the entirety of the game.

At the end of the day, however, football is football, and the results on the gridiron will always tell a story. For Akron and Central, they tell fairly distinct ones which could indicate a lot of what the rest of the season will have in store over the remaining five weeks.

Let’s get into it:

So about the CMU running game... What took so long?

There was fear struck into the hearts of many Chippewa fans an hour or so before the game, when it was announced Lew Nichols was out with an undisclosed injury suffered last in last week’s contest.

Nichols was the country’s leading rusher last season, and had been struggling to get acclimated to the new Paul Petrino offense, but he was still the most experienced back in the stable, so there were certainly some concern to be had in a must-win game.

Enter Charlestown, Indiana’s Marion Lukes.

The true sophomore back barnstormed the Zips defense for 231 total yards and all of CMU’s offensive touchdowns, leading the Chippewas in both rushing (160) and receiving (71) yards on the day. Lukes, normally a third-string back who was brought in for garbage time reps this year, averaged 9.9 yards per carry prior to this week, and continued similar numbers as the lead back, with 6.2 yards per carry on 26 attempts.

It does lead to the question: what took so long to figure out this direction for the offense?

Nichols, as good as he is, felt mismatched for what CMU has wanted to do this season, going out for a lot of passes, screens and outside runs despite being more of a true power back. Perhaps the staff initially wanted him to diversify in order to preserve his health, but watching it as the weeks went on, it was clear it wasn’t working.

Lukes, then, proved an excellent fit, showing off impressive first step speed and soft hands, getting 33 total touches during the game. It was clear he had won the spot from Myles Bailey at some point during the week, and it showed in Saturday’s game.

But now they reach another pivotal question: do they continue to ride the hot hand when Nichols comes back, or do they re-commit to their workhorse back? Their game against BGSU might answer some of those questions, as the Falcons clipped a productive Miami run game this week.

A glimpse into how the CMU defense hopes to look

The CMU defense was a sink-or-swim unit which often depended on havoc plays for production in 2021, and was built to be much the same in 2022. They’re still a Top 25 unit in both tackles-for-loss (64, fifth-best in NCAA) and sacks (20, tied for 20th-best in NCAA), but context is still important: this team is middling in total defense, allowing 29 points per game (about four more points than last season), while scoring just 26, a touchdown less per game on average.

That’ll result in a lot of losses when your turnover margin has regressed, with 14 lost to 7 gained, on pace for a 1:2 won-to-lost ratio, whereas last season, it was closer to 1:1.

Their game vs. Akron, was a glimpse into what they hope to be. CMU found 12 tackles-for-loss and eight sacks, while holding Akron to 5-of-15 on third-down and forcing six punts and two field goal attempts. They also made the Zips one-dimensional, with the running game combining for 20 net yards after DJ Irons’ initial 53-yard rushing touchdown.

LaQuan Johnson came alive in starting reps, with four tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss and a sack on the day, pacing the defensive line, which had eight TFLs and 4.5 sacks as a unit, while Incoom took a turnover for points to help neutralize the turnover battle.

Opponent strength does have to be considered in this one, and Akron is still pretty much the worst program in the MAC. But if they can maintain this momentum on BGSU’s similarly-built offense and split WMU and EMU (who are both liable to unpredictable performances), they could well salvage the season.

CMU special teams continues to struggle

CMU special teams did play a role in the Akron gameplan this week— but not in the way we anticipated.

Josh Rolston got the start at placekicker, but ran a fake field goal play to get eight scrimmage yards and set up Marion Lukes’ second touchdown of the day, resulting in the highlight play of the day for the unit, which suffered a fumble and saw four different players attempt returns as the team still tries to figure out their situation in that phase of the game.

Marshall Meeder came out for CMU’s one field goal attempt of the day, an indication the team is still going through a position battle there as well. He missed from 35 yards, though he did make all four extra points.

Even the usually sturdy Luke Elzinga struggled immensely this week, with five punts for an average of 28.5 yards, with a long of 55 yards and two inside-the-20. The two inside-the-20 punts were certainly meant for field position, but that doesn;t really explain the other kicks, which felt off.

There’s still a weird vibe on this unit which has and seemingly will continue to impact this team moving forward. The staff will have to choose between de-emphasizing it or hoping it will fix itself in the clutch weeks.

Akron shows determination once again on offense

For the second-straight week, the Zips were able to claw their way from a seemingly hopeless two-score margin to put themselves in a position to win the game late once again, bridging a 21-7 gap early in the third quarter by outscoring CMU 14-0 in the second half to stay competitive with a talented CMU team whose defense had their way with them all day.

The game demanded a lot out of DJ Irons, and he stepped up to the plate swinging, finishing 25-of-38 for 255 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. The raw output wasn’t nearly as much as the prior two weeks, but it was enough to help lead the Zips into scoring situations throughout.

Irons found nine receivers for at least one reception, with Daniel George and Shocky Jacques-Louis coming up time and again for key conversions, while tight ends TJ Banks and Tristian Branks also had long receptions to set up Akron for success.

If special teams had converted on their opportunities earlier in the game, this is a very different game which validates their growth from past games. Akron punched Central, a division co-champion in 2021, in the mouth and made them bleed, which is awesome for them, even despite the final score. This team could well be 3-3 or 4-2 if a few results go differently.

Welcome back, Charles Amankwaa

We’ve been wondering about Charles Amankwaa for awhile; he did not appear in the participation logs for the first three weeks, then had two statless appearances leading up to this match-up against CMU.

He made his presence felt, with two tackles and three pass break-ups, including an extremely pivotal third-down stop in the red zone to force CMU to attempt a field goal instead— an opportunity they ultimately missed on. It’s a welcome addition to a defensive backfield which could use the coverage help, as his three pass break-ups instantly put him atop the table for the Zips, whose previous leader only mustered two over six games prior.

If this is a return to form for the all-MAC corner, it will be a huge addition for the development of the defense, which has churned out a number of impressive performances over the last three weeks, especially in the second half of games.

Execution was off at the worst time

What ultimately lost Akron this game was a lack of execution in key situations.

This was an issue in earlier close games, with Liberty an BGSU immediately coming to mind, as Akron would get right up to the precipice to take a lead and find some way to take themselves out of contention.

It came up once again against Central, as their usually on-it placekicker Noah Perez missed his first two field goals of the season in quick succession, deflating the momentum the offense had built up in the first half. Were he to make both, Akron trots into the halftime break down only eight points instead of 14, and that’s a key margin which could have won the game.

This isn’t to blame Perez for the loss; he made all the extra point attempts and the team was still in a position to win late in the contest.

Then, of course, there was the inexplicable fumbled hand-off between DJ Irons and Clyde Price III, which felt like a lapse of concentration. For context, Akron had forced a CMU punt to give the Zips the ball at their own 48-yard line on the prior drive, and went downfield for 15 yards on six plays to get to the CMU 37-yard line, gaining yards on every play to try and set up the game-winning score.

Botching something as basic as an RPO handoff in that situation is the difference between being a winner and being a loser, and right now, Akron is in a place where they need to learn how to not lose. The fumble return touchdown by Incoom was the moment which showed for all of their improvements this season, they’re still in Year 0 of the rebuild.

Fans will look at the result and say “ah hell, Akron finding way to lose yet again!”, but considering how competitve they were up to that point. and how defeated CMU looked prior to the snap, there’s reason to have optimism.

Those are plays which Akron will get right down the road under this staff if they continue to develop this quickly. Don’t lose faith just yet.

Central Michigan gets set to host the Bowling Green Falcons at home to try and get a winning streak going for the first time this season, while Akron will face Kent State in the Battle for the Wagon Wheel.