It was not a particularly encouraging game if you’re a fan of the Chippewas, especially given it was supposed to be a warm-up ahead of a bout with the suddenly-electric Penn State Nittany Lions, but at the end of the day, a 41-point shutout victory is still exactly that, and it cannot be taken for granted.
An unexpected loss to South Alabama really pinned the Chippewas in a strange spot, as what looked like a favorable pre-season slate suddenly is a scary one, with two fierce conference bouts after this week against Toledo and Ball State.
If they stumble out of the gates, it could be a long season for the Maroon and Gold, which is why marked improvements against a team such as Penn State are tantamount to their potential outlook.
For now, however, we have to take a look backwards, at a suddenly revealing game against Bucknell, and pinpoint what exactly the issues were, and if there were any positive things to take away from the proceedings.
Special teams miscues set up pressure in the other phases
CMU went off to slow starts in the first two contests this season, with a combination of talent differences (vs. Oklahoma State) and questionable playcalling (vs. USA) affecting the game flow in both of those contests.
Bucknell was perhaps the slowest start of the season, as it took CMU 37 plays in five possessions to finally get on the board with 4:49 to go in the first half in a scoreless tilt. Part of the reason for the efficiency issue was a matter of not converting at the end of drives; the longest two drives of the first half, lasting over nine minutes of play clock combined, ended with zero points as Marshall Meeder hooked both of his first attempts at field goal.
After the first missed field goal attempt, the offense came out on the next possession and threw an interception directly at the Bucknell defense, compounding the issue further on the second miss. Even after the CMU touchdown, an illegal kickoff meant giving the Bison charitable field position once again in a true “when it rains, it pours” situation.
Due to the various miscues early on, Bucknell started at an average spot of their own 35-yard line on their seven first-half possessions, forcing the CMU defense to have to play with their ears pinned back for most of the first 30 minutes just to generate some sort of positive result.
These issues languished even into the second half, with a perpetual swap of kickers in the second half resulting in four lost points due to a missed field goal and a missed extra point attempt. Without these potential misfires, CMU could have put up 10 more points off the missed kicks, points which would have been invaluable to building up confidence.
Injuries showed lack of chemistry across the board
There were a good number of players who were out due to injuries in this game, with the most notable names being Carlos Carriere (dental procedure) and Dallas Dixon (arm) on offense and Donte Kent (dental procedure) and Trey Jones (maintenance) on defense, leaving CMU fairly thin at key positions.
Not helping matters was the departure of Rolliann Sturkey, who left the team for undiscoled reasons after the Week 2 contest vs. USA.
This meant a lot of getting-to-know-you on the field, as Finn Hogan, Sam Hicks and Langston Lewis all saw some time at the outside and slot receiver positions, while Caleb Spann and Lavario Wiley debuted in place of Jones and Sturkey. Ronald Kent, brother of Donte, also started in the defensive backfield.
With these moves, the entire starting secondary save for Donte Kent has turned over since last year due to graduation, transfer or departure, which could go part way to explain why there have been back-end issues in recent games.
Either way, it was clear there were some on-boarding issues when faced up against an opponent, and it took a good while for CMU to figure it out on both sides, as the defense allowed Bucknell to move the ball effectively, while timing issues and drops were apparent on the offense in the first half.
Ultimately, it all turned around in the second half, but agaisnt stronger opponents, some of those growing pains will start to crop up again, especially on defense.
Carriere returns to the outside receiver spot, taking some pressure off Jalen McGaughy, who was targeted a lot last week, but the slot receiver spot will see some battles between Hicks and Lewis.
Is there room for a two-quarterback system?
Daniel Richardson was not free of the struggles the rest of the offense experienced on Saturday, as his erratic arm and internal clock showed signs of concern against a bad Bucknell defense.
Richardson finished 15-of-32 for 198 yards and two touchdowns, with one interception, and seemed to lack touch and timing for a second consecutive week. Richardson was 2-of-9 with an interception in the first quarter, and finished the first half 7-of-18 with an additional touchdown which was off a tipped pass. He rebounded to finish the second half 8-of-14 with a big-play 45-yard touchdown to a wide-open Langston Lewis, but when taken into account with his other games so far, part of the slow starts are offense can be attributed to Richardson.
Enter Jase Bauer, who immediately showed off why the CMU staff were so eager to recruit him away from Iowa and a number of successful FCS programs.
Bauer connected on his one pass attempt for 44 yards, and ran in for two touchdowns of his own, eluding defenders with shocking speed to put the game well and truly out of hand. Bauer looked every part the natural, unfazed of being at command of the offense. It was a performance reminiscent of the old Tommy Lazzaro days in 2018 and 2019, when the Coloradan would enter the game as a change-of-pace Wildcat QB.
It brings up a very interesting question: is there room for two quarterbacks to occupy the field for Central?
Central had their best season under Jim McElwain utilizing a two-quarterback system in 2019, the year the Chippewas went worst-to-first in the MAC West and faced Miami in the MAC Championship Game.
Even if it wasn’t the intention of the coaching staff, they might have found out a few things about Bauer they weren’t expecting to learn. Richardson’s ceiling is known, and his starting position is absolutely not in question, as at his best, he’s one of the most dangerous quarterback in the conference. That said, the staff also has to consider decisions which could help them win games, both in the short-term during their Penn State prep, and over the longer term.
The defense still looks capable in a pinch
The Chippewa defense once again stood on its head when it needed to on Saturday, bowing up as the offense struggled to get going early on, eventually finishing the deal in the second half by ensuring a shutout in the late going.
The Chips looked like their old 2021 havoc-causing selves again, with 13 tackles-for-loss, three sacks, four QB hits and seven pass break-ups, while also allowing a third-down conversion rate of just 2-of-16 to Bucknell after giving up 8-of-17 attempts vs. USA last week.
Overall as a unit, the Chips only gave up 174 yards on 66 plays (averaging 2.6 yards per play), with only 21 yards allowed on the ground, keeping the Bison one-dimensional and predictable throughout.
Michael Heldman’s fantastic redshirt freshman continues, showing the skills which won him a starting role on the line with 3.5 tackles-for-loss and 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble on a team-leading five total tackles to torture the Bison linemen all day. Caleb Spann also proved his worth in his debut, nabbing an interception to stop a Bison drive at a crucial juncture— though he did fumble the return.
The defense has certainly proven it can be depended upon in key situations, and those situations might pop up for awhile until the offense finally settles in with all their new pieces. They’ll have their hands full against Penn State, but they’ve proven capable of generating stops when necessary so far this season with a ferocious pass rush and aggressive run fills.
CMU will take on Penn State on Saturday at noon Eastern time on the Big Ten Network.