The Central Michigan Chippewas (1-2) are set to travel to beautiful Mobile on Saturday to take on the South Alabama Jaguars (2-1) of the Sun Belt Conference.
The match is set to be the return game in a series which started last season in Mt. Pleasant, a contest where USA asserted their dominance early with key defensive plays and sailed to a win with their high-powered offense.
CMU and USA come into the game on opposite trajectories; the Jags are set up to make a run at the Sun Belt title in a very rough-and-tumble conference, while the Chips are looking to show improvement for a season start which has been less-than-ideal.
What can we expect to see on Saturday?
- Time and date: Saturday, September 23rd, 2023 at 5 p.m. Eastern time
- Network: ESPN+ (A valid subscription is required.)
- Location: Hancock Whitney Stadium in Mobile, Alabama
- Gambling considerations: USA is a 15-point favorite, with an over/under of 49.5, per DraftKings.
- All-time series: USA has won the only match-up between the two teams.
- Last meeting: The Jaguars mauled the Chippewas in a game which wasn’t as close as the box score suggests in a 38-24 contest in Mt. Pleasant.
Getting to know the Jaguars
The Jaguars have arrived on the Group of Five scene in Kane Wommack’s third year in Mobile. After a blank-slate first year, USA made a rapid ascent in 2022, finishing 10-3 overall with a 7-1 conference record in the hyper-competitive Sun Belt Conference, narrowly losing out on an opportunity to play for the conference title.
Coming into this matchup, USA will be fresh off a 33-7 walloping of Oklahoma State on the road in a contest which left OK State head coach Mike Gundy waxing philosophical in post-game availability.
In many ways, USA has similar philosophies with CMU in that they use the run to establish the pass downfield.
As a unit, the Jaguars are 71st in overall offense, with 1,169 yards and 11 touchdowns scored over three games for an average of 6.8 yards per play, and hold one of the stronger third-down conversion rates in the country, going 20-of-39 on attempts thus far in 2023 (23rd in NCAA.) USA’s rushing offense is much of that success, with 738 yards and seven touchdowns, putting them 38th in the NCAA.
What is unique for USA is they are perfect in their redzone attempts; on 11 visits to the opposing redzone, the Jags have come away with 65 points on eight touchdowns and three field goals.
Their offense rosters two running backs more than capable of carrying the individual load in La’Damian Webb and Kentrel Bullock. Webb was explosive in last year’s contest, going off for 91 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries, while also hauling in 30 yards on two receptions. Webb currently sits at 272 yards on 34 carries, with four touchdowns. Bullock has emerged as a secondary option after mostly playing special teams over his prior three seasons, with 190 yards on 44 carries, scoring once.
Carter Bradley also returns at the controls of the offense after torching CMU for three touchdowns in last year’s contest. Bradley, a former spot starter for Toledo, set USA records for passing yards, touchdowns and completions in his first year at QB for the Jags, and is coming off a great performance vs. OK State, where he threw 10-of-16 passes for 152 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions.
Their receiving game is paced by Caulin Lacey, who leads the team in receptions (20), yards (303) and touchdowns (three.) No other receiver has more than three catches or 99 yards (Jamal Pritchett), while Devin Voisin is responsible for the team’s other receiving score.
CMU head coach Jim McElwain noted the defense was going to be difficult to prepare for, saying specifically they lined up in a lot more “odd” formations than they did the last time these two teams played.
“They do a great job of taking away your strengths,” McElwain said in his weekly press availability. “They keep you confused; what they do with pressure... they try to attack you with angles.”
The unit is relatively average defensively, sitting at 67th of 130 teams. They’ve allowed an average of 350 yards per game and seven scores overall to opponents, with five of those seven touchdowns through the air. The unit is top-40 in the run game, with a 99.3 yards per game average (35th.)
Linebackers James Miller (19 tackles, 1.5 tackles-for-loss) and Quentin Wilfawn (nine tackles, three tackles-for-loss, one sacks) lead that angled attack from the center of the defense, with Jamie Sherriff (10 tackles, 1.5 tackles-for-loss, one sack) and Brock Higdon (six tackles, two tackles-for-loss, two sacks) generating pressure from the line.
2022 first-team all-Sun Belt safety Yam Banks (12 tackles, one interception) returns to lead the defensive backfield, and is paired up with Trey Kiser (12 tackles in 2023), who finished with 80 tackles, six tackles-for-loss and two interceptions last season.
Getting to know the Chippewas
The Chippewas on offense are still centered on a ball-possession, run-oriented attack which seeks out the big play via the pass whenever the matchup is preferable.
A lot of the success for the Chips will be predicated on if their quarterback is up to snuff. Bert Emanuel Jr. is expected to be back this week after an undisclosed illness kept him out of last week’s game vs. Notre Dame. He is the team’s most dynamic player, leading the teams in yards gained (205) and touchdowns (two) on 38 carries in the ground. The passing game is still a work-in-progress, but Emanuel Jr. continues to show progress there, going 18-of-26 for 280 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions.
Per head coach Jim McElwain, the team is also expected to play backup Jase Bauer (13-of-29, 157 yards), who started the game last week vs. Notre Dame and had a decent showing in relief of Emanuel Jr.
Regardless of quarterback, this is a team which could probably fare better on getting into favorable situations. The Chips are 128th of 130 teams in third-down conversions (11-of-42) and 111th in first downs converted, with just 42 coming via offense and 11 via penalties.
This has been a focus for McElwain in practice this week, as he emphasized in weekly press availability the team needs to be “much better” on first and second down situations, noting the level of execution hasn’t been there recently.
Something which could help with that would be an improved running game.
Myles Bailey seems to be the go-to back in the rotation so far, with 186 yards and two touchdowns over the last three games to lead the team. When Emanuel Jr. is in the game, he becomes a major threat in the run game as well, surpassing Bailey’s rushing total when sack yardage is taken away. Marion Lukes (19 rushes, 75 yards) is also a backfield option, but has shown more prowess on kick and punt returns, scoring once in that phase.
As a unit however, they average about 3.8 yards per play, good for 63rd in the NCAA. That’s pretty good if the passing game is a threat, but it very much isn’t at the present point of the build, with just 493 yards through three games (123rd in the NCAA) and an even TD:INT ratio.
Chris Parker has been the deep ball target when the passing game is engaged, with 142 yards and a touchdown on five receptions. After that is a mish-mash of receivers collecting receptions, with Tyson Davis (91 yards, touchdown), Jesse Prewitt III (90 yards, touchdown) and tight end Mitchel Collier (30 yards) each collecting three apiece.
Defensively, the Chippewas are what can be considered an aggressive unit who hopes to create havoc plays with backfield penetration and risky coverage. Their schedule has been brutal to start the season and doesn’t look to be letting up this week.
“They killed us [last season],” McElwain noted with a chuckle. “We have to be prepared for the early thunder.”
McElwain emphasized the defense has been working on not allowing the big play, something he labeled the “Achilles heel of the defense.” It’s a real issue; through the first three games, CMU has allowed six “explosive” touchdowns of 20 yards or more, with 22 total plays fitting those parameters.
Such unforgiving plays have reflected in the overall stats. CMU’s passing defense is 129th of 130 teams with 1,114 yards and nine touchdowns allowed thus far, while the rushing defense clocks in at 78th, allowing a 4.98 yards per rush average and six scores.
Cornerback Donte Kent has been the busiest man on the defense, with 26 tackles and two pass break-ups on the season. It’s been a surprising performance considering his all-MAC selection the year prior, as his coverage vs. Michigan State and Notre Dame was responsible for several big plays. At his best, however, he is one of the MAC’s best ballhawks, as his game is predicated on anticipating the passes for breakups and interceptions.
Jacques Bristol has been CMU’s point-man for interior rush, with three tackles-for-loss to lead the team. The Chips have just three sacks so far, with three players accounting for a sack apiece.
Given all this information, the Chips come in as a 15-point road dog to South Alabama. They’ll need to hold on to the ball and be efficient in converting for makeable first downs throughout in order to keep a very capable offense off the field, while also tightening up their back-end coverage in order to limit USA’s ability to threaten downfield and make them one-dimensional.