“They killed us,” Central Michigan head coach Jim McElwain said when quizzed about last year’s contest against South Alabama. It was an emphatic and definitive statement, rooted in fact thanks to the box score from the last time these two programs met in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan 378 days prior.
The contest was the second game of the season for a CMU team expected to make a run at the MAC West division title once again in 2022 after getting left out of the championship game due to a tiebreaker. The Chips were five-point favorites going into last year’s game, but came out a wounded mess, scratched by the Jaguars for a 31-10 halftime lead which ultimately stretched into a 38-24 final for the road team.
It was the first sign that something was amiss in the 2022 campaign, and proved to be a bellweather game, as the Chippewas finished 4-8 and looked head-long at a litany of departures and perhaps a potential rebuild.
Since then, the Chippewas have been a state of self-discovery and adversity. They’ve proven competitive at points in 2023 thus far despite their imperfections, with punching early against Michigan State and Notre Dame, while taking FCS powerhouse New Hampshire to the wire.
Given all that background, Saturday’s matchup in Mobile, Alabama proved to be an exorcising of several ghosts, as the Central Michigan Chippewas (2-2) took down the South Alabama Jaguars in their shiny new stadium by a final score of 34-30 thanks to a gritty last-gasp drive led by backup quarterback Jase Bauer.
Central crawled out of the gate to start the game, as the offense under starting quarterback Bert Emanuel Jr. stalled on two straight three-and-out possessions, allowing the Jaguars to build a quick 14-0 lead on the back of a La’Damian Webb three-yard run and a Carter Bradley pass to Caullin Lacy on a 35-yard wheel route.
Jase Bauer would come into the game on the third offensive series for Central, and never gave the keys back, leading an 11-play, 75-yard drive over five minutes, capping it off with a powerful 15-yard touchdown run, shedding multiple defenders to cross the goal line and put the score at 14-7 with 13:37 to go in the second quarter.
A quick three-and-out forced by the Chippweas defense gave the offense the ball back within a minute, and once again, CMU matriculated down the gridiron on a nice 14-play, 69-yard drive, giving Bauer the opportunity to score on a QB sneak and give CMU a chance to tie.
Tristan Mattson would hook the extra point attempt wide left, however, allowing South Alabama to preserve their lead at 14-13 with 4:13 to go in the second quarter.
South Alabama looked to answer with a strong offensive drive of their own, and managed to get all the way to CMU’s 29-yard line with around 45 seconds to go thanks to an eight-yard reception by Caullin Lacy on third-and-nine, setting up a fourth-and-one attempt. USA head coach Kane Wommack opted to go for it with a one-point lead, calling an inside hand-off to La’Damian Webb. The conversion attempt failed, as Trey Jones III met Webb two yard behind the line of scrimmage to force a turnover-on-downs.
This play loomed large, as the Jaguars got the ball back to start the third quarter. A conversion could have offered the opportunity to double up points on the halftime flip. Instead, South Alabama went three-and-out, and punter Jack Martin had his worst boot of the night, a 30-yard howler which gifted CMU the ball at their own 44-yard line.
Once again, CMU found whatever they liked on the ensuing 10-play, 56-yard drive, culminating in Jase Bauer’s third rushing touchdown of the day from one yard out to put the Chips in the lead for the first time at 20-14 with 8:31 to go in the third quarter.
South Alabama stopped the 20-point unanswered point rally with 53 seconds to go in the third quarter, having to settle for a 36-yard Diego Guajardo field goal to end a 12-play, 61-yard drive which saw an endzone shot dropped on third-down.
The Chippewas weren’t done yet however, with Jase Bauer pulling off perhaps his best play of the night after the fourth quarter ticker started. On third-and-five from their own 30-yard line, Bauer took the snap and was immediately met with pressure. Bauer started to roll out of the pocket, but was tripped up by an incoming Jaguar defender. Instead of falling, he was able to re-orient himself, get back on his feet, and roll right before delivering a missile to a streaking Jesse Prewitt III, who took the ball the rest of the way for a 70-yard receiving touchdown.
The score would give CMU their biggest lead of the day at 27-17 with 14:47 remaining.
The Jaguars weren’t to be outdone; Caullin Lacy would beat Donte Kent in the one-on-one matchup and go untouched for a 72-yard touchdown, cutting the lead back down to a one-possession game at 27-23. Crucially. Diego Guajardo missed the extra point, meaning USA would have to score a touchdown in order to re-claim the lead.
The two teams stalemated over the next three possessions, with CMU and USA exchanging three-and-outs and CMU posting a six-play drive ending in a punt before La’Damian Webb would find the endzone for the second time in the game to give the Jaguars the 30-27 lead with 2:42 remaining.
On the ensuing possession, all hope seemed lost for CMU after a third-and-10 pass came up seven yards short of the line-to-gain, setting up a dangerous fourth-and-seven at the USA 35-yard line with around a minute left in the game.
But a saving grace emerged in the form of an after-the-play unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against South Alabama linebacker Quentin Wilfawn, granting CMU a new set of downs and a free 15 yards.
Wilfawn raged off the field, and CMU would take advantage, as Jase Bauer would break the plane for his fourth rushing touchdown of the day to give CMU what would be the game-winning touchdown with 18 seconds remaining.
South Alabama would try a mad-dash Hail Mary drive at game’s end, but it was to no avail, as the Chippewas escaped with the one-score victory in Mobile.
Per the broadcast, Jim McElwain had planned to play Bert Emanuel Jr. for the first two possessions, then Jase Bauer for the first half. If this was indeed the case, it most certainly produced a satisfactory result.
Bauer led the Chips in both passing (19-of-30, 224 yards, one touchdown) and rushing (15 rushes, 55 yards) on the night, with four rushing touchdowns to boot. Jesse Prewitt III stole the show on the receiving side for CMU, hauling in 10 catches for 142 yards and the lone receiving touchdown. Marion Lukes had four catches for 26 yards and 35 yards on nine carries. Bert Emanuel Jr. completed his only pass attempt for six yards, and gained eight yards on two rushes.
Kyle Moretti led all defenders with 11 total tackles, and also notched a pass break-up. Five different Chippewas collected at least one tackle-for-loss, with Jacques Bristol and Quindario Lee notching 1.5 TFLs and a sack each.
South Alabama’s offense had a decent night in a losing effort, with Carter Bradley completing 17-of-27 passes for 254 yards and two touchdowns. Caullin Lacy and Jamaal Pritchett tied for the team lead with six receptions each, but Lacy was the big play threat, with 132 yards and both receiving touchdowns. Pritchett finished with 62 receiving yards. La’Damian Webb had 68 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries, with backup Kentrel Bullock rushing five times for 65 yards.
Despite his late mistake, Quentin Wilfawn paced the Jaguars defense with 10 tackles. The unit had six tackles-for-loss, five QB hits and two sacks on the day, with Yam Banks (five tackles, 1.5 TFLs) and Charles Coleman III (three tackles, TFL) each notching a sack.
Central Michigan opens up their conference schedule at home with a match against i-state MAC peer Eastern Michigan for a contest next Saturday afternoon scheduled for a 1:30 p.m. Eastern kick.
South Alabama, meanwhile, will prepare to travel to Virginia to face the James Madison Dukes for a scheduled noon Eastern kickoff next Saturday.