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What We Learned from Central Michigan’s 35-22 victory over Northern Illinois

Both CMU and NIU desperately needed a win to stay in postseason contention, and the staffs brought out the kitchen sinks.

NCAA Football: Northern Illinois at Kentucky Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

The Central Michigan Chippewas (3-6, 2-3 MAC West) and Northern Illinois Huskies (2-7, 1-4 MAC West) were both in dire straits on Wednesday night, needing a win to keep their hopes alive— and their critics off their backs.

It was ultimately the Chippewas who emerged triumphant despite a shaky performance and a lot of shuffling parts to improve to 11-1 under Jim McElwain in November, while the Huskies are left to wonder why in a game which could have been won under different circumstances.

This week, our NIU writer Dave Drury joins me to talk the Huskies side of the ball. Let’s get right into it:

CMU’s offensive changes weren’t perfect, but they were enough

The Chippewas came in to the contest with NIU with a lot of questions to account for.

Daniel Richardson, the embedded starter, and Jase Bauer, a promising backup with talent, seemed to be competing for the starting rights vs. BGSU, with coaches mum in the lead-up on who would lead the team onto the field.

Lew Nichols’ health was also a question, as he was not listed in the game notes for the NIU game after being out the last two games. Even the offensive line was getting looked at after a horrendous performance against BGSU, with the game notes listing several “OR” designations this week.

We got some looks into potential changes on Wednesday, as not one, not two, but THREE quarterbacks all got playing time for the Chippewas, with all quarterbacks getting special packages. Richardson ran the passing offense, while Jase Bauer ran an option run-heavy offense and Bert Emanuel Jr. came on to help CMU drain clock with inside runs.

Nichols also played, instantly giving CMU a shot in the arm on offensive balance despite clearly still suffering from an ankle injury. It was a relief, as CMU struggled the prior week with walk-on Jake Tafelski taking the majority of snaps.

Nichols (28 carries, 92 yards) and Bauer (14 carries, 109 yards, two scores) led the rushing attack, while Daniel Richardson (13-of-22, 150 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) looked a lot steadier in the passing game under the re-worked offensive plan. Even Emanuel found success, with 30 yards on six carries in the ground game (though he did suffer a fumble.)

CMU went from 369 yards and 18 points (including 34 yards in the first half) to 451 yards and 35 points in a week, which is certainly an improvement. Now, part of that efficiency can be contributed to NIU’s own woes, but they executed when they needed to, as you can’t fault them for it.

When it was on, it was on. The defense certainly helped them along, throwing down one of, if not the best, performances of their 2022 season in shutting down the Huskies offense.

It’s unknown if this was simply a one-game game plan or if this extremely rare three-QB rotation will be a mainstay. It did have its issues at points in the game, but it did exactly what it needed to do to take down the Huskies on the road.

Turnover issues still plague the Chips as a unit

Turnovers continue to be a nightmare for the Chippewas, who came into Wednesday as the country’s worst team in turnover margin at -11.

The Chippewas once again found themselves in a negative turnover ratio despite largely dominating the game, with five total fumbles (including three lost) and an interception finding their way into the waiting arms of Huskie defenders.

A fumble by Lew Nichols (his second of the day) was particularly frustrating, as it was returned for a 57-yard scoop-and-score to bring the margin from three scores down to one in the late going. The Chippewas were also lucky on a fourth-down fake field goal, as tight end Bryant Kieft caught— then fumbled— a 28-yard conversion and had to react quickly to prevent a turnover. They were able to score off it, but it’s worrisome that all three offensive phases (passing, rushing and punt units) have all had issues holding on to the ball.

CMU did manage to come up clutch with a strip sack touchdown to cancel out the NIU defensive touchdown, but once again put themselves in danger with another careless fumble by Bert Emanuel Jr. with just three minutes remaining.

It’s been an issue all season for Central, and it has caused them a lot of pain. The coin flips went their way this time around, as they managed a number of stops on key downs to give CMU short field (more on that in a moment), but without those drives, it may well have been the loss which sunk the season.

Who is this quarterback for NIU?

The Huskies opted to bypass Justin Lynch this week and, instead of going with Dustin Fletcher or Jeffery Lomax (who we all had as the next in line at QB), Hammock went with a walk-on true freshman - Nevan Cremascoli out of Winnetka, Illinois.

Cremascoli was an All-State quarterback at New Trier High School the past two years and in his final ten games last year he threw for 2,400 yards and 18 touchdowns with a 70% completion rate and added an additional 480 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on the ground.

In his collegiate debut, Cremascoli started off great, completing his first two pass attempts for gains of 25-yards and 12-yards respectively. However, Cremascoli reverted back to looking like a scout teamer for a bit, missing his next six passes and ten of the next twelve throws. Cremascoli finished the game 13-of-33 (39.4 percent) with 158 yards, two touchdowns, an interception, and a fumble lost.

He did show some flashes of brilliance. There was a great pass to Soraghan for the Huskies’ first score and then an absolute dime to Tristen Tewes for a 34-yard touchdown to start the fourth quarter. And, for the most part, his deep passes and his throws on the run looked pretty accurate...even if they weren’t caught.

But he also looked very much like a true freshman at times; fumbling the ball in the endzone for a CMU touchdown, over/under-throwing receivers, and focusing solely the primary target without checking down or looking off defenders (leading to an easy pick late in the game).

Honestly, for a fourth string, true freshman, walk-on quarterback, he looked pretty solid. He was good throwing on the run and out of the pocket but just needs some time to refine his accuracy and check for other options out there.

Harrison Waylee owns the MAC

Sure, Carson Steele and Marquez Cooper might have more total rushing yards than Waylee, but they also have 33 percent more carries than Waylee and average a whole yard less per run.

Waylee now sits at 863 yards and five touchdowns on his 151 carries, with most of his damage coming against conference foes.

In his first four games, he netted a mere 215 yards and just one touchdown. But, in the last five games, all against the MAC, he has exploded for 648 rushing yards (75.1 percent of his total yards) and four touchdowns.

In conference games, he is averaging 6.68 yards per carry, the most of any MAC running back, and he has two of the four longest runs in conference play (with touchdowns of 76- and 68-yards). If he was getting the carries that Cooper and Steele are getting, he’d be a top-10 back in the country at his pace.

Here’s a look at the MAC’s leading rushers in conference play:

  • Cooper: 144 carries, 743 yards, 5.16 YPC, 5 TD, long of 46
  • Waylee: 97 carries, 648 yards, 6.68 YPC, 4 TD, longs of 76 AND 68
  • Steele: 131 carries, 631 yards, 4.82 YPC, 5 TD, long of 29

Waylee, doing more with less. The Hard Way.

Aggression decided the game in both directions (James)

What ultimately won and lost the game was decision-making and execution on third-and-fourth downs, a.k.a. “key” downs.

The most obvious instance of this was in the first half, when NIU opted to go for it on forth down three times, including the first two fourth-down situations in the first two series. NIU “went” from their own 43-yard line and from the CMU 33-yard line in an attempt to catch the Chippewas off-guard, but failed both times, giving CMU a huge advantage.

Possibly frustrated after falling behind 14-0 early, and after failing to convert on an interception off a tipped pass, NIU once again opted to go at the CMU 41 with about 10 minutes to go in the second quarter. They failed to convert that as well, and CMU would turn it in to points to push the margin to 21-0.

This ultimately forced NIU’s gameplan to change over the rest of the game, as they had to pass a lot more than anticipated (Cremascoli, who started the season as QB6, had 33 pass attempts), and the defense had to pin their ears back to pick up the slack (which to their credit, they did.)

NIU finished 6-of-15 on third-down, going three-and out four times, while going 0-of-4 on fourth downs, which speaks to a lack of execution. Meanwhile on the other side of the ball, CMU dialed up the right plays to convert on third down, going 9-of-17, and also went 2-of-2 on much-needed fourth-down situations.

The aggression for CMU, combined with execution on deep passes and opening up holes in the outside run game, turned out to be the difference in a game where turnovers mattered.

NIU fans should rightly be frstrated at the team’s performance, as it felt at times the Huskies were trying too much to create possessions with a depleted roster at the cost of sticking to what they do best.

It’s impossible to know what Hammock will do next (Dave)

As he has done his entire tenure, Coach Hammock likes to keep his cards close to his vest. Whether it’s injuries or who is starting or what we’ll see on the field, the general public rarely has any idea.

It can be fun and interesting in some aspects, seeing things like NIU run out of the wildcat randomly, throwing wide receiver reverse passes or watching a walk-on freshman play an entire game when your post-season hopes hang in the balance... but it can also be quite frustrating.

With no update on injuries, who would’ve guessed we would have seen Rocky Lombardi come back for a game, get NIU a win, and then sit the rest of the season (Most likely? Maybe not? Who knows?!) Would Justin Lynch playing the whole game have made a difference? Was Cremascoli always part of the plan? All of this wondering is something which feels especially bad when the team is performing as poorly as it is currently.

Every week it’s a new adventure with these Huskies. Will Lynch be back next week or will it be Cremascoli again? Will Lomax or Fletcher get a shot? Will Lombardi be back? Will Antario Brown get more than six carries or will Waylee keep getting the rock?

Only Hammock knows and he certainly likes to keep us guessing.