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2023 MAC Football Week 3 Game Preview: Central Michigan Chippewas at Notre Dame Fighting Irish

It’s a first-ever meeting between the Golden Domers and the Chippewas in South Bend for an online-exclusive match.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 09 Notre Dame at NC State Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Central Michigan Chippewas (1-1) are set to travel just over the Michigan/Indiana border to take on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (2-0) for the first time in program history, joining the Irish in waking the echos of college football in front of the world-famous Touchdown Jesus.

CMU is coming off a walk-off field-goal victory against an extremely tough 45-42 New Hampshire squad, while Notre Dame traveled to Raleigh, North Carolina to effecively snuff out the NC State Wolfpack with a 45-24 victory.

The Irish will come into this contest as the ninth-ranked team in the Associated Press poll, so this is a team which is very capable of making a run should they find the right gears. They’ll face CMU looking to gather some style points.

Let’s get right into it, then:

Game notes

  • Time and date: Saturday, September 16th, 2023 at 2:30 p.m. Eastern time
  • Network: NBC’s Peacock (A valid subscription is required.)
  • Location: Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana
  • Gambling considerations: Notre Dame is a 34.5-point favorite, with an over/under of 52, per DraftKings.
  • All-time series: First meeting

Getting to know the Fighting Irish

NCAA Football: Tennessee State at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The Irish appear to be in great hands under the tutelage of Marcus Freeeman, who took over from former Central Michigan head coach Brian Kelly last season.

The Irish are a Top 10 team in the AP Polls, and feature some very promising recruiting classes on the roster, with the ninth-ranked class in the country in 2022 and 10th-ranked group in 2021. They’re well on the way to another top-ranked recruiting effort as well, sitting at 13th early on.

Suffice to say they’re on the upswing after some frustrating seasons late in the Kelly era.

On offense, the Irish are led by Wake Forest transfer quarterback Sam Hartman. Through three games, he’s kept the promise of a coveted Power Five prospect, going 48-of-64 for 731 yards and 10 touchdowns, with no interceptions through the air. Central Michigan head coach Jim McElwain was very complimentary of Hartman in weekly press availability, saying of Hartman “he’s the full meal deal.”

“... [T]hey needed that addition as good as they are,” McElwain said. “He knows how to play the game. As a guy who has coached quarterbacks for a long time, it’s fun to watch those guys that know exactly where to go with it, know exactly what to do with it.”

He’ll have a lot of great players to toss the ball to on the outside, with four 100-yard-plus receivers all ready to carry the load. Two-year starter Jayden Thomas is their current leader, with eight receptions for 125 yards and a score, while true freshman Jaden Greathouse isn’t far behind, with eight receptions for 113 yards and a team-high three touchdowns on the young season. Tight end Holden Staes is a redzone threat, with three scores on five receptions, while five-foot-nine receiver Chris Tyree is the speed option, with six catches for 128 yards and a score.

Audric Estime handles the primary ball-carrying duties, while also ranking fourth on the receiving charts. The five-foot-11, 227 lb. NFL prospect currently has 345 yards and four scores on 43 carries, while also hauling in five catches for 55 yards, showing dual versatility from the halfback spot.

The Notre Dame defense will be missing at least one major contributor coming into the contest, with graduate linebacker JD Bertrand dealing with a concussion suffered last week. He’s a defensive leader known for excellent run stopping skills, with 13 tackles, one tackle-for-loss and three QB hits. Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman confirmed a pair of freshmen linebackers would replace Bertrans in Drayk Bowen (one tackle) and Jaiden Ausberry (three tackles.)

Fellow linebackers Jack Kiser and Howard Cross are at the top of the charts for the Irish in tackles, with 16 and 15 total stops, respectively.

The defensive secondary features a pair of safeties who are excellent all-around in DJ Brown and Xavier Watts. Both have notched nine tackles and an interception apiece, with Watts also accounting for a pair of pass break-ups. Cam Hart leads the secondary with three pass break-ups from the corner spot.

Traverse City, Michigan native Joshua Burnham has been the Irish’s best penetration option so far in 2023, as the six-foot-three, 248 lb. linebacker-to-EDGE convert has collected two tackles-for-loss and a sack to lead all defensive linemen.

Getting to know the Chippewas

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 01 Central Michigan at Michigan State Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Chips showed a lot of offensive potential in their game against New Hampshire, with Bert Emanuel Jr. exhibiting the work he’s put in learning the passing game. The flipside of that, however, is the defense was exposed, getting gashed for nearly 500 yards to an FCS team. (Granted, a very, very good FCS team, but still an FCS team.)

Emanuel has especially found a connection with Chris Parker, who registered just four receptions over his career prior to the start of the 2023 campaign. Parker leads all Chippewa receivers with 142 yards and a touchdown on five catches. No other receivers have been as lucky in getting open, unfortunately, with receiver Tyson Davis (three catches, 52 yards) second on the chart. Tight end Mitchel Collier and running back Sam Hicks are the only other Chips to record multiple catches.

Thankfully for Central, their four running backs (as well as Emanuel’s running threat) give them a lot of variety in playcalling. Emanuel is the most dynamic of the options, with 142 net yards (205 yards gained) and two touchdowns on both designed runs and scrambles. CMU likes to emply Emanuel on QB power and draw looks to open up the center of the field, then attack the outside with Myles Bailey and Marion Lukes. There’s roles for other players as well, with Mizzou transfer BJ Harris primarily used in power looks and Sam Hicks put out on obvious passing down situations.

Notre Dame is stout against the run, so the Chips are going to have to find balance in order to not be backed into a corner early. Their run game is their strength, but they’ll need to find more variety if they want a chance in that respect.

Speaking of defenses, New Hampshire exposed some soft zones and bad tendencies against the Chippewas last week, an issue which will likely be addressed in practice this week. The Wildcats were able to get CMU off-kilter by employing long-developing screens and mixing that in with shots in the middle of the field to take advantage of soft spots in the defense.

Donte Kent and Elijah Rikard have been a great paring at outside corners so far, with the pair combining for three pass break-ups and an interception so far this season. One of Kent’s break-ups was on an endzone pass, while Rikard had a second interception wiped off by an offsides penalty. Kent also leads the team in tackles currently, with 20 stops so far in the season.

The Chips will likely rotate linebackers and safeties in-and-out depending on the situation. Kyle Moretti (19 tackles) and Justin Whiteside (nine tackles) will be the two mainstay backers to fill the run gaps, while Fernando Sanchez III, Dakota Cochran and Jordan Kwiatkowski will see time at outside backer. Trey Jones and Lavario Wiley will see full-time reps at safety, with De’Javion Stephey coming on as a third safety when need be.

CMU is still looking for more consistent defensive line play, but two names have emerged from the pile to be solid contributors in defensive tackle Jacques Bristol (eight tackles, three tackles-for-loss, sack) and defensive end Maurice White (tackle-for-loss, sack, forced fumble.) Michael Heldman has shown flashes in the rotation as well, gathering four QB hits— an indication he’s getting home, but just a little too late. That can certainly be worked on as the season goes on.

To put it shortly, CMU is going to have an uphill climb.

CMU will need to punch them early and maintain that pressure to have any chance at an upset, but it’s not completely unheard of to get one over on the Golden Domers. Just last season, Marshall took down Notre Dame by a final of 26-21 on a Peacock-exclusive broadcast in early September.

This is, perhaps, why the message going into practices this week has been noticeably sunnier and more future-focused. “Enjoy the moment has really been it for us,” McElwain said when asked about a theme for the week. “Don’t get scared when you see those shiny helmets.”

At their most optimal, CMU wants to play aggressively on both sides of the ball and outphysical opponents, but the problem for them heading into this matchup is “those shiny helmets” are currently better at both of those things.

“They are so sound in all phases,” McElwain noted in his weekly press availability. “That’s something that impresses me when I watch film. This year, they are a little more aggressive. When you break down last year in comparison, the blitz really is something, and how violent they are is pretty awesome to be honest with you.”

It’ll be a long 60 minutes for the Chips, but it will also be a great test of their mettle coming off a week where they had to peel away a win from the jaws of defeat.