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What We Learned from Central Michigan’s 34-18 loss to Bowling Green

There were glimmers of good and bad for both sides in this game, as CMU faces an existential choice of their own making and BGSU banks in on a great performance to continue an improbable run.

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

The Bowling Green Falcons hopped back up to a .500 overall record by recording a 34-18 victory against the Central Michigan Chippewas on Saturday afternoon, dominating the home team in a myriad of ways to pick up the two-score win.

Whether it was with a bruising running game and mismatches downfield on offense, or with an aggressive defense which shut down any hope of matriculating the ball downfield, BGSU stepped up to the plate and picked up their third league win to plant themselves firmly in the MAC East division title hunt.

Conversely, it was a hellish day for the Chippewas, who lost their ability to compete for the MAC West division, and now face the possibility of missing out on a bowl game for the first time in a full season since 2018, the year they finished a program-worst 1-11. It would be devastating to lose the opportunity for the postseason, as this team could use the practice reps it provides for a unit which is still seeking an identity.

From either perspective, there were certainly things to be learned about both squads after looking at the tape:

BGSU’s defense is legitimate

Strength of opponent aside, the Falcons were able to flex their defensive muscles against Central Michigan on the road to get up to a 3-1 mark in league play. The Falcons held the Chippewas to just 34 total yards in the first half, and 306 yards total as the Chips furiously attempted a comeback for the entirety of the second half.

It was a relentless pursuit of the ball, especially where the front seven was concerned, as the unit picked up eight tackles-for-loss and six sacks, with Demetrius Hardamon capping it off with a scoop-n-score touchdown from 45 yards out to shut the door on a potential comeback. The defense also had three forced fumbles, recovering all three fumbles (scoring once) and even nabbed an interception on a pass at the line, which defensive tackle Walter Haire returned for 26 yards.

Karl Brooks was especially effective, with all three of his stops in the game coming on sacks, while the defense as a whole kept CMU to 4-of-12 on third-down attempts and 1-of-2 on fourth-down attempts, including a sack fumble.

There’s still some questions about if they can keep it up, as their three wins in-league are against Akron, Miami and CMU and their worst loss was 38-7 to Buffalo, but Saturday was a dominant effort on the road in a game where the difference was ultimately on whoever got the right stop at the right time.

Sometimes, that’s all you need.

A discipline problem kept the game closer than it had to be for the Falcons

For all the good the Falcons did in this game, it was a lot closer than it needed to be solely because of BGSU’s inability to play in a clean fashion.

The Falcons committed an incredible 17 penalties in the game, totaling 146 yards, and gifted the Chippewas four penalties via first downs, allowing CMU some chances to get on the board.

BGSU was one of the worst in the country already in penalties coming into this game, ranking in the low 100’s, and fell right away to the worst in the country after this contest, with 28 more yards than the next closest team (Cincinnatti) and three more total flags than the next closest team (Alabama.)

The first noticeable penalty leading to a score was an unsportsmanlike conduct after a 35-yard kickoff return to start the third quarter, giving CMU the ball at the BGSU 35-yard line, leading to a touchdown just three plays later and tightening the game up at 17-10.

BGSU committed a bad facemask penalty on a third-and-11 conversion, eventually forcing a punt right back to CMU with a chance to tie. CMU was then gifted a free redzone visit on the heels of a BGSU facemask penalty, putting the ball at the BGSU 11. The Chips could well have tied the game up had backup QB Jase Bauer not looked the wrong way on fourth-and-seven, which BGSU would stop for a turnover.

Two more BGSU penalties on the next drive stopped a drive once again, but the special teams got incredibly lucky on a muffed punt to end the third quarter, and a pass interference call led to a CMU score in the final frame as well.

Questionable coaching decisions lose the game late for Central

You can’t exactly fault Central for trying something given the state of the program at current, coming into the game 2-5 in league play and suffering the loss of their best player on the team some weeks ago. But what you can certainly question is the way they went about it.

It was clear coming in the staff felt this was the game to experiment and/or survive, at times feeling like they were more looking ahead to the future as opposed to playing towards a particular opponent, and it clearly affected their ability to cobble together much of anything.

Let’s start with the most obvious change of strategy: Daniel Richardson was struggling immensely. His performance has deteriorated throughout the season, and it was clear he was being written out of the gameplan with a passing line of 3-of-5 for 19 yards, taking three sacks.

Despite this, he was still allowed to start the game and was still in rotation late, closing out the half with a 14-yard loss on a sack and ultimately sack-fumbling in injury relief of Bauer late in the second half. One wonders what could have happened if they stuck to Bauer from the start as opposed to rotating. Sometimes, the obvious thing is obvious for a reason, and you need to commit to it.

The running game was also a worry, as Lew Nichols did not dress despite Jim McElwain insisting he would be “probable” for the game during press conferences throughout the week. The solution was a lot of Jase Bauer designed runs, as an early injury to Marion Lukes (who had only mustered 16 yards in two quarters) forced CMU to commit to play walk-on back Jake Tefalski (who totaled four yards) and pull starting safety De’Javion Stephney to take reps. Stephney pulled off two huge runs in his time at the spot, but logged no yards as every run involving him was called back. Even understanding the injury situation, it was truly dire in every way.

Finally, one play call in particular sticks out: fourth-and-seven at the BGSU eight-yard line, down 17-10 in the third quarter. In a game where points had been at a premium, and where Marshal Meeder had converted on both kick attempts (a 52-yard field goal and an XPA), CMU instead opted to go for the touchdown, going for a mesh play with a running back wheel route. It was an aggressive call if it worked, but it led to a humiliating sack-fumble, as Bauer made the wrong first read and was immediately dropped by two unaccounted-for rushers.

It ended up being an extremely important drive, as CMU would end up down two possessions after that with BGSU scoring 10-straight points afterwards. A touchdown would have tied the game up, yes, but rewarding the offense and keeping the pressure on could have changed the game flow. It’s a play they’ll be looking at over and over again.

Passing the torch is now essential for Central

The most important thing which emerged from this game for Central was playing the Jase Bauer card.

We saw a lot of his promise vs. Bucknell, as he was key to putting away a punch Bison team in the late going, and wondered back then if there would be a role for him in the offense down the line as Richardson had started to show some shakiness at that point in the season.

Now that the staff has uncorked him in a desperate effort to get a win, they’ve got no choice but to move forward with him for the rest of the season. This is not to suggest it’s a bad thing; in fact, it’ll probably benefit the team overall.

Bauer’s dual-threat ability gives CMU something they haven’t seen since David Moore in 2019, and the stats reflect it. Bauer finished 18-of-25 for 185 yards, one touchdown and one interception, with an additional 109 net yards on the ground (132 yards gained before sacks.)

A switch to Bauer also indicates an admission that 2022 is not a year to be competitive, and allows CMU to explore some of the other younger or newer options on the roster to see what they have heading into 2023. Assuming McElwain and staff stay on after this season, developing that talent should be tantamount to the future of this team.

This has already happened a little bit over the last few weeks, but a full commitment to it certainly can’t hurt, as this team sits at six losses and would not get the extra developmental time the postseason affords with one more loss. At that point, might as well start the young guns and see if they sink or swim.

Both teams are on the miniature BYE week before the commencement of the weeknight games, with both teams playing on Wednesday night. BGSU faces off against WMU at 7 p.m. Eastern time on ESPN2, while CMU plays NIU on ESPNU for a scheduled 7:30 p.m. Eastern time kickoff.