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What We Learned from Central Michigan’s 38-24 loss to South Alabama

To say this was an unexpected result is an understatement. Now down 0-2 to start the season, what can we take away from the season so far?

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Oklahoma State Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday was a bit of a shocker, to say the least.

The Chippewas, who came in as touchdown favorites against South Alabama, were instead throttled into submission in front of a fairly-sized crowd who had assembled for the home opener. It was a less-than-inspired performance, with CMU languishing offensively and sleepwalking defensively, falling to a four-possession deficit just before the half in a game which was never close.

There’s something to be said for taking things for granted, and this was certainly a game where CMU likely find out they might have done just that going into the first two games.

As always, there are things to learn from each week, so let’s just rip the band-aid off and get right into it.

Both lines struggled immensely

It was apparent from the first snap from scrimmage that it was going to be a rough day all around for the CMU offensive and defensive lines. USA’s lines were able to handle the Chips attack with ease, as what was one of the country’s most aggressive— and successful— units in 2021 on both sides of the ball. USA was simply bigger, stronger and wanted it more on this particular Saturday, and that spelled doom for CMU.

The USA offense picked up over 500 total yards, while yielding just two sacks and 6.5 tackles-for-loss on the day. They simply bullied CMU off the line, going 8-of-17 on third-down conversions (CMU averaged about 34.4 percent on third down in 2021) and possessing the ball for over 38 minutes, including 18:38 in the first half.

On the other side, CMU’s offensive line struggled immensely, with just 81 rushing yards and 338 total yards, while giving up six tackles-for-loss and three sacks. They also couldn’t move the USA defensive line or handle the speed of oncoming rushers, as the offense went just 5-of-15 on third-down attempts, while also going 1-of-4 on fourth-down attempts, going under 33 percent overall on key downs.

USA’s beatdown of the CMU defense was so thorough, the possibility exists that opposing teams could take the film and expose such weaknesses unless Jim McElwain and the rest of the staff address them post-haste.

There’s been lots of changes on both lines, so some struggle is certainly understandable. In Week 1, the benefit of the doubt could reasonably be given considering the timing (first game of a new season) and the opponent (a currently Top 10-ranked Oklahoma State,) but to struggle against a peer program as betting favorites at home is a concern.

CMU fans will have to watch for signs of progress over the next few weeks against Bucknell and Penn State before going into the start of the conference season, especially on the offensive line.

Burn the scripted plays

For the second-straight game, CMU came out slinging the pill around, with Daniel Richardson expected to connect on short routes and screen passes to spread the defense around and open up running lanes later in the game.

It didn’t work on the first possession in either game, and in the second game, it went even worse, with the Chippewas collecting three straight three-and-outs. This comes as a bit of a surprise, considering how the team operated in the prior season, with Lew Nichols as the primary operative down the middle of the field or off-tackle.

It’s still a bit of a mystery as to why the staff feels they need to start this way (though I would suspect it has to do with losing two of their senior tackles to the NFL Draft), but whatever they’re trying to do is clearly not working, as either teams are keying on to what they’re doing, the team is not executing, the personnel is all wrong, or some combination therein.

The loss of Kalil Pimpleton to the NFL is felt most especially here, as his get-off speed allowed CMU to execute stretch and tunnel screens. The Chips have replaced those with more standard halfback screens with Nichols and Myles Bailey, and they simply have not worked out as intended most of the time.

Last week was the second game in a row where CMU allowed themselves top be buried in opposing points before chucking-and-praying their way back into respectability. Once is a accident, twice is a coincidence. If it happens again against a lowly Bucknell squad, then play sequencing is a genuine concern going forward.

Backfield miscommunications continue

Central has a reputation for being an aggressive defensive look, and it was something USA found and neutralized in this game early and often on offense, employing short screen passes and boot plays to get CMU to bite inside, then distribute outside.

We talked before about explosives vs. Oklahoma State; it was once again an issue here, as CMU gave up five plays of 20+ yards, including three in the first quarter alone. A lot of those plays were directly over the heads of defensive backs and linebackers in coverage, with passing plays of 40 yards, 36 yards, 22 yards and 26 yards in the first 16:30 of game clock.

If you extend the definition of an explosive to Pete Carroll’s “12 and 16” model, it gets even worse, with nine passing plays of 16+ yards and three rushes of 12+ yards, three of which ended in touchdowns.

Of those 12 plays, five of them occurred in the first quarter, with two resulting in touchdowns, and four of them coming in the fourth quarter during CMU’s comeback attempt— including two in a row on a 16-yard reception on third-and-six at the CMU 46-yard line, which was immediately followed by a 30-yard rushing touchdown.

Missed tackles and blown coverages occured early and often, and USA took everything they could get from it. Defensive coordinator Robb Akey will not be happy with the lack of discipline, especially in the open field tackles and abandoned assignments.

Is there a kicker issue?

Let’s talk about kicking.

Special teams is kind of a “eh, whatever” unit to most average fans, but when the special teams are off, it can be felt in the other two phases. That was apparent on Saturday, as both kickers for CMU turned in concerning days on the turf.

It started fairly quickly, with Josh Rolston yanking a kickoff out-of-bounds, giving USA the ball at their own 35-yard line after CMU scored their first touchdown. He would kick it out-of-bounds again on the second half kickoff, gifting USA favorable field position once again. CMU would manage to pick up an interception on the drive, but already being down 31-7, it forced the defense to stand on their heads once again.

Rolston also struggled on onside kicks, with an 18-yarder dribbled right into the hands of USA, and kicking another onside attempt out of bounds after a 16-yard attempt, never giving CMU another chance at a possession when they needed it most.

That’s all before we even get to Marshall Meeder, who struggled once again at home.

Meeder went 1-of-2, with a 48-yard make to the video board side of the field, and a 36-yard miss to the Champions Center side of the field, where he has historically struggled. He’s now 33 percent on the year, with his career make rate careening down from 100 percent in 2020 (8-of-8, long of 53 yards) to 65.3 percent in 2021 (17-of-26, including one block.)

The missed field goal was particularly brutal, as it came directly after Trey Jones bailed out a bad kickoff on special teams, giving the CMU offense an opportunity to engineer their most sustained drive of the day. It was deflating, and clearly took the crowd out of the rest of the game.

The kicking woes, combined with an early turnover on a strip fumble during a return, resulted in a nightmare day for special teams, which placed even more pressure on the offense and defense to perform.

They’ll have to get it together if they want to help CMU stay competitive in games.

Central will seek to find solutions to the problem which ail them when they take on Bucknell on Saturday, Sept. 17 at 1 p.m. Eastern time, in a game streamed exclusively on ESPN+.