Central Michigan just completed one of the most difficult non-conference schedules out of any team in the Mid-American Conference. This included contests against the likes of Oklahoma State, Syracuse, and Michigan State, all of whom reign from Power Five conferences. The odds were never in the Chippewas' favor, but no one could have foreseen the performance that the team managed to put together in each of these three match-ups.
The Chippewas were beginning their first season under head coach John Bonamego, and no one had a true sense of what was in store for the upcoming season. Questions surrounded the program, which had just experienced the abrupt departure of former head coach Dan Enos to become the offensive coordinator for Arkansas (who, ironically, are also 1-3 at this point of the season). Long story short, there was little to no faith among the Chippewa following.
Once gametime came around, all those questions went by the wayside. Despite being 20.5 point underdogs against the Oklahoma State Cowboys (currently No. 22), Cooper Rush was able to lead the Chippewas to only a 10-6 deficit going into halftime. An early third quarter Cooper Rush rushing touchdown put Central Michigan in the lead for the first time of the game.
Not a single analyst could have predicted this situation, in which the Chippewas found themselves with a legitimate chance of pulling off the upset on national television.
The game was going back and forth between the two teams, until the Cowboys scored in the third and again in the fourth quarter, increasing their lead to 24-13. Central Michigan was threatening Oklahoma State in the final quarter, but could not capitalize at the end of drives. Ultimately, the Chippewas would fall to their Big 12 foe, in a much closer game than anybody would have expected, 24-13.
It's now Riley Neal's job to lose
Riley Neal did better than any other quarterback did versus Northwestern this season, and now he should be the starter for the foreseeable future.
The following week, Central Michigan would pick up its first win at home against FCS Monmouth, in a 31-10 blowout.
The Syracuse Orange were picked as 7-point favorites over Central Michigan at home in Week 3, according to Odds Shark. Even though the Chippewas weren't as bad underdogs as they had been in week one, not many believed that they could knock off Syracuse, especially after the throttling the Chips received at home from the Orange just last season.
Midway through the second quarter, it looked like history wouldrepeat itself, as Syracuse had extended their lead to 17-3. Syracuse was able to score one more time before halftime, making their lead 24-10.
The second half was a different story. The Chippewa defense shut down the Orange offense, keeping them scoreless for the rest of regulation. Central Michigan was able to capitalize on their first drive of the second half, driving the ball 94 yards on 8 plays to shorten the lead to 24-17. The game was in both teams' hands, and it was close for the rest of the contest.
Cooper Rush led his team 90 yards on 12 plays in just over two minutes of game time on the final drive of regulation to force OT, thanks to tight end Ben McCord, who made an amazing play on the ball, with seven seconds left in the game.
Unfortunately, the Orange fixed their problems with Central's defense, and marched into the end zone. This defeat was difficult, because many of those who watched the game can attest to the fact that the Chippewas played out of their minds and deserved to come out with the upset. But, the record simply shows that they lost the game, when the game was much closer than anybody would expect.
Last week, the Chippewas faced perhaps their biggest task yet: the Michigan State Spartans. Central Michigan found themselves as 28.5-point underdogs, according to Odds Shark. The No. 2 team in the nation was hosting an in-state foe, and, unfortunately, a good number of Central Michigan students appeared to be rooting for the opposing team, rather than their own school.
Coach Bonamego willed his defense into stopping the Spartan offense throughout the game. The Spartans, as expected by the rest of the country, jumped out to an early 17-0 lead with 5 minutes remaining in the second quarter. At this point with many other teams, the desire to compete vanishes, along with the chances of the team to win the game. That is the opposite of how Central Michigan handled the daunting deficit. Cooper Rush got the ball back and got to work. He led his offense down the field, and threw a touchdown to Anthony Rice with 8 seconds left in the half, bringing the deficit to 17-7, with the potential of being 17-13 were it not for two early blocked field goals.
The defense was impressive, holding one of the nation's top college quarterbacks in Connor Cook to a mere 143 yards through the air. They were able to keep the offense in check for most of the second half, allowing Rush and comany all the time to hold on to the ball.
Central held on to the ball almost ten minutes more than the Spartans did in the first half, and that trend continued well into the second half, with CMU actually gaining more total yards in the game. On the road. Against the No. 2 team in the country. Were it not for an unfortunate Jesse Kroll fumble, this game could have ended very differently.
It has appeared as a theme so far for the Chippewas this season: resilience through adversity. It seems that Central Michigan learned a valuable lesson after the 2014 Bahamas Bowl that "it ain't over til it's over", as Yogi Berra used to say. No matter how tall the task, Central Michigan stands a chance against any team in the country.
Cooper Rush has been sneaky efficient in his four games, throwing over 300 yards twice, and totaling 1,268 yards in the airon a 69.5% completion percentage. Jesse Kroll, Mark Chapman, Anthony Rice, and Corey Willis have been reliable targets in the absence of Titus Davis, forcing defenses to guess who is getting the touch on most every play.
The defense has been stellar all around, and has not allowed a runner of over 100 yards in twelve games, while rendering the passing game effectively void (as shown in the Michigan State game.) Malik Fountain, who amassed a career-high 11 tackles vs. MSU, has surpassed all expectations in the young season.
Are there some problems? Yes. The offensive line has been outmatched in all their games thus far, which causes great frustrations in the running game. However, with the schedule lightening up a bit, the games against tough competition could be a boon for the Chippewas.
Entering MAC play, the Chippewas have played some great football against great teams. Their 1-3 record does not properly encompass their performance against "superior" opponents. The ability for this team to play to the best of their abilities despite the caliber of opponent is admirable, and Coach Bonamego has definitely started a nice culture around Mt. Pleasant already. Outsiders will scoff and say that at the end of the day, football is a results-driven business (and to a degree, they're right.) However, if you look deeper into the numbers and the film, trends emerge that you just cannot deny.
Prognosticators might look down on Central Michigan, but don't be fooled: the Chippewas are contenders and definitely more than capable of surprising the college football world.