The Central Michigan Chippewas traveled southeast to face the Toledo Rockets on Saturday in a league opener for both sides, in a game which many had circled on the calendar as a potential division decider right off the bat.
It was the only nationally-televised game of the week, airing on he NFL Network, andxd the resultant action showed the full potential of the homestanding Rockets, as Toledo took down the Chips with relative ease, winning by a final score of 38-17.
The contest was never in doubt, showing off flaws and good spots over the 60 minutes of play. We try to glean some lessons from the game below:
Central still has no solutions for finding offensive rhythm
We’ve been harping on it since Week 1, but it seems there is still no real answer for this particular problem for CMU, and that is a major concern for a team which was considered one of the top returning offenses in the MAC during the preseason.
For the third time in five games, the Chippewas found themselves trailing by three possessions at halftime in this game, taking themselves out of it early with some atrociously inefficient drives. On the whole, CMU was 7-of-19 on third-down, having to go 3-of-5 for fourth downs to have any chance of extending drives, and then went 1-of-3 on redzone chances, garnering seven points overall.
They opened the game with a field goal off a 10-play, 37-yard drive lasting over four minutes, then followed it up with:
- two straight three-and-outs
- a lost fumble in front of the goal line on a one-play, negative 13-yard drive
- a six-play, seven-yard drive
- a four-play, one-yard drive
- and a 10-play, 37-yard drive ending on downs which took only 1:18 off the clock.
At the end of the first half, they were, unsurprisingly, down 31-3.
It wasn’t just their inability to get going, as the offensive line couldn’t create holes and receivers kept dropping passes, it was also a seeming lack of conviction in the playcalling, as they started with an emphasis on the ground game with Lew Nichols and the other backs, but then went pass-happy on three straight drives.
Falling into such early holes is taking CMU out of their element, and that falls upon the coaching staff at some point in failing to create adjustments or trying something new. Whether it’s a personnel issue or a play-callling issue or some combination of both, the team is being failed somewhere along the line, and it will take a deep look in the mirror to fix it.
If this happens again next week against a middling Ball State team, the season could be lost, regardless of the team’s second-half performance.
Mobile quarterbacks continue to plague CMU’s defense
The CMU defense has lost a lot of contributors from the 2021 team, so it was always going to be some tough sledding from a personnel acclamation standpoint, but the problems are greatly accelerated when they face mobile quarterbacks.
Dequan Finn had his way with the CMU defense last week, with 84 net yards with a long of 38 yards, picking up over seven yards per carry. Take out sack yards and the like, and he gained 104 yards. Add that to 186 yards through the air for two touchdowns, and it shows a lack of contain discipline that has been easy to exploit.
Oklahoma State exposed similar issues with Spencer Sanders in Week 1, as he picked up six total touchdowns (four passing, two rushing) and 463 total yards, while not getting sacked once.
It’s a symptom of a lack of pass rush, as CMU has combined for just eight sacks in five games. This is very much a departure from a CMU team which finished the season with 43 sacks in 2021, as they’re currently on pace for 20 by season’s end. Their inability to get home exerts a lot of pressure on an inexperienced defensive backfield which has gone through persistent rotations due to departures and injuries, and it’s not working, as they’re one of the worst passing defenses in the country.
It’s a perpetual circle of suck that’s creating a lot of issues for CMU all around. The offense fails the defense, the defense fails the offense, and special teams fails them both.
Ball State and Akron are next for this unit, and two once-winnable games are suddenly fairly scary. Robb Akey and his crew will have to figure out solutions to their problems quickly before CMU falls out of relevancy.
Toledo’s defense is for real
A joke for a long time in MAC circles was that as long as you ignored the Rockets defense, Toledo was one of the best teams in the league. Fast-forward a few years, and the joke no longer applies, as it’s now the Rockets defense which is the highlight unit on the team, coming in as one of the toughest units in the conference.
After a 2019 season which saw Toledo lose many games due to defensive miscues, Jason Candle took a chance on Division III coaching legend Vince Kehres, and it’s paid off now.
Their complete shredding against the College Football Megazord that is the Ohio State Buckeyes aside, this is a stingy unit which has had no more than 17 points scored on them, and have never had the result in doubt. Even with the Ohio State game on the record, Toledo is 44th in the country in total defense, with 339 yards per game allowed on average, and 11 of their 16 touchdowns given up belonging to the Buckeyes.
Against Central Michigan, they held a potentially powerful offense to just 33 rushing yards and 253 passing yards—most of which came in the second half in a desperate effort to catch back up. A 1-of-3 redzone conversion rate is also impressive.
Defensive back Dallas Gant has been the ideal transfer portal addition from Ohio State, leading the team with 42 tackles (11 more than the second-best tackler), and has 2.5 tackles-for-loss, three pass break-ups (tied for second) and a forced fumble.
The trio of all-MAC front seven contributors have also continued to work at frantic paces, with Dyontae Johnson (31 tackles, two tackles-for-loss, three pass break-ups, forced fumble and recovery), Desjuan Johnson (24 tackles-for-loss, team-leading 6.5 tackles-for-loss, half-sack) and Jamal Hines (16 tackles, two tackles-for-loss, three pass break-ups) all working up to their ceilings on a team which has a number of depth options as well, with Judge Culpepper, Maxen Hook and Adrian Wolliver (two sacks to lead team) on rotation as well.
With a team so stacked on defense, the offense has a chance to grow under a developing Dequan Finn and chew clock down on the strength of efficient drives.
Dequan Finn only has room to grow
An underrated storyline coming into this game was quarterback Dequann Finn— but maybe not for the reasons many would have considered.
Finn was a former Central Michigan verbal commit under Jon Bonamego’s tenure, but after his firing, Finn re-opened his recruitment, with Jim McElwain ultimately unable to retain Finn as part of the new class, as he chose to go to Toledo instead on National Signing Day. McElwain would sign Daniel Richardson and transfer Quinton Dormady to fill that void.
Toledo sure seems to have found a star in Finn, who took over the starting role halfway through 2021, replacing Carter Bradley. Finn finished the 2021 season 144-of-250 for 2,071 yards, 18 touchdowns and just two interceptions, while rushing for 505 yards on 111 carries, scoring five times.
This game against CMU was Finn’s high-water mark of the season, setting current season highs in rushing yards (84), longest rush (38), and passing touchdowns (two). He’s still developing, as his completion percentage sits at around the mid-sixties, but his dual-threat tendencies are extremely evident, and he’s got one of the best offensive support casts in the MAC in front of him, giving this team great potential.
Finn had a shocking performance against San Diego State two weeks ago, but he also single-handedly kept Toledo somewhat competitive against Ohio State, so Toledo has to be willing to take the bad with the good. Outside of that SDSU game, Finn has seven touchdowns and two interceptions.
He’s still a sophomore and has several years to establish himself as an attractive prospect, and any fan of Toledo football (and the MAC as a whole) should be excited to track it.