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Football Sunday: The curious case of Central Michigan

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With Cooper Rush and other key pieces coming back, this is a team worth entertaining to win their division.

NCAA Football: Toledo at Central Michigan Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

He was written off time and time again: John Bonamego was one of the "worst" hires as a head coach. He hadn’t coached at the collegiate level since his assistant gig with Army from 1993-98, and was a wandering special teams coach in the NFL since then. But he came back to his alma mater after Dan Enos ran off to Arkansas just two weeks before National Signing Day circa 2015.

There was some question of how the team would do without Thomas Rawls and Titus Davis to help out their offense, but they still had Cooper Rush entering his third year as a starter, and the defense was expected to be pretty good. That side of the ball proved to be more legitimate than expected after they held Oklahoma State to 24 points when the Cowboys were expected to win by 23.

At season’s end, Central Michigan was 7-6. Opening up MAC play with a 10-point win over Northern Illinois opened up a can of worms in the West race. At one point in the game, CMU put up 24 unanswered points and still finished with the third-least amount of offensive yards in any game of the season (275 yards). Central followed that up with a road loss to Western Michigan by two points, where the rushing attack was more than twice as productive as it was the week before. They won three in a row, then lost their second MAC game at home to Toledo 28-23, where they were out-gained on the ground 163-59.

Tie-breakers had their way with all four of the usual suspects finishing with 6-2 in-conference records. CMU had no shot at winning the division heading into the final week of the regular season, and a Toledo loss to WMU sent NIU to Detroit for the seventh year in a row.

CMU would still go to Detroit, but only to face Minnesota in the Quick Lane Bowl. The Golden Gophers were one of the few 5-7 teams considered to go bowling, and the Chippewas never got anything going on offense and one [really] bad interception from Cooper Rush sealed the deal for the Gophers in a 21-14 game.

To win the MAC, let alone their division, they’re going to have to win some very specific battles. Of course, there’s actually a pretty long list of objectives that could be said, but I’m going to try and limit them.

The Chippewas must open up MAC play with a win vs. Western Michigan

And this goes without saying, but at the same time, I have to say it. Media polls won’t be released until Media Day arrives, and we can all expect WMU to be the favorites in the West with P.J. Fleck entering his fourth year as their head coach and Corey Davis on the verge of being a first round draft pick.

Rush had two games last year where he was sitting near 50 percent passing: the 10-point win over NIU and the bowl game against Minnesota. At Waldo Stadium last year, he had four TD passes with only nine completions (71.9 percent).

WMU certainly doesn’t lack talent on defense, but what they don’t have is the years of chemistry in their secondary like CMU has with their receivers. Five players were able to rack up over 500 yards receiving for the Chippewas in 2015: Jesse Kroll (866; 14.2), Ben McCord (612; 15.7), Anthony rice (595; 10.4), Corey Willis (564; 15.2), and Mark Chapman (559; 13.0).

Note: Yes, I know Ben McCord was a tight end. Let’s not split hairs here. Stats via sports-reference.com.

All but McCord are returning to play for the Chippewas this season and the two junior tight ends, Tyler Conklin and Zach Crouch, that will be expected to fill the void. Even then, there’s still a fair amount of talent that’s returning, most importantly they’ll have Cooper Rush to help feel confident as this game progresses.

If CMU is going to win the Victory Cannon, they’ll have to win it here. Darius Jackson will start at cornerback for one half of the field, but the other side might end up being Obbie Jackson, who was redshirted last year. Highly-touted prospect Justin Tranquill received a medical redshirt after an ACL tear, could end up being the starting safety with Notre Dame transfer (2013) Justin Ferguson, who played in seven games last year but didn’t collect any stats to show for. Asantay Brown was an All-MAC safety last year and has been shifted to linebacker (per Phil Steele’s preview magazine). If that’s the case, WMU could still have a good secondary, but maybe October 1, 2016 is too soon for them to have this area be a non-issue.

Also, it was Daniel Braverman who had a big day (6-137-3) for WMU’s receiving; Corey Davis was limited to six catches, 45 yards and one TD late in the first half. That’s worth the footnote for the CMU secondary, returning most of their starters from last year, minus Kavon Frazier.

Create certainty with the run game

Romello Ross was set to be a redshirt player his first year on campus up until the Buffalo game. Devon Spalding had three starts through five games before having a season-ending injury, as if losing Saylor Lavallii before the season began wasn’t bad enough. Against WMU in their sixth game of the year, Martez Walker and Jahray Hayes had a combined 84 yards on the ground, and the team finally got to a game where they hit the 100-yard rushing mark in a game (161) and finally passed the 3.0 yards per carry mark (5.2). But that wasn’t enough.

Walker, who ended up leading the team with 373 yards for the season, had 20 handles against Buffalo (October 17) where he finally found the end zone for the first and second time that year. Ross had 13 carries for 54 yards in his debut, but it wasn’t enough to lead the pack. He had five handles in the next two games before he had 10 on the road against Kent State. Ross found the end zone three times in the season finale against Eastern Michigan and once against Minnesota where he had a 100-yard performance. The only other time a CMU player hit triple-digits was against EMU when Walker had 119 yards on 17 handoffs.

You don’t need a single person to pick up a nice round number of 100 yards on the ground to have a good running game, but it certainly helps. Thomas Rawls did it five times in 2014 (twice north of 200), Saylor Lavallii was able to do it three times the year before that, and Zurlon Tipton did it eight times the year before that.

Collectively, the Chippewas were able to have 101.3 yards per game last year, which is about as close to their finish with 105.8 in 2010 when they finished 3-9 overall. In 2011, they went 3-9 again, but their rushing average went up to 115.8, but the rushing totals went up after that, making them bowl-eligible in 2012 (150.2), 2013 (132.8), and 2014 (155.2).

Walker has since transferred from the program (his Twitter account shows that he’s playing for St. Joseph’s College in Indiana, but he’s not listed on their current roster), but CMU adds a transfer in Berkley Edwards. Formerly with Minnesota, Edwards will have to sit out a year, but his passion for track hints that he’ll be a speedy threat out of the backfield in 2017 with, presumably, Spalding and Ross entering their senior and junior seasons, respectively.

Until then, experience with this Hayes/Ross/Spalding trio is always something for me to write down that their combined 753 yards last year is a mark that they should be able to improve from, but they’ll have to play through their potential and make a mark against their MAC foes.

Get those 3-and-outs in the second half

Sure, you want to give your offense a breather every once in a while, but it’s also best to play some keepaway with the team that CMU should have.

Toledo couldn’t get on their first two drives of the second half at Kelly-Shorts Stadium, stopped in three plays on the following drive, but got a touchdown on the fourth. That score was due to the offense not being able to make any real progress on a failed 4th & 4 early in the fourth quarter, but it also gave Toledo and their countless playmakers decent field position near midfield. Rewind this up a bit: Toledo missed a field goal from four yards out just two possessions ago after starting their drive from their own 25-yard line.

The Rockets lost yards on first down plays twice this drive, but their wide receivers were able to make a couple of big plays to get down field and at least threaten in the red zone. If we can play pretend here for just a moment and turn this drive into a 3-and-out (say, the pass to Cody Thompson was incomplete and the next play was an incomplete, too), then maybe CMU has the ball with 60ish yards to go with about seven minutes in the third quarter to go. Obviously, there’s still so much more to go, but a touchdown after fielding the pretend punt would put CMU ahead 23-21 before the PAT. Then, there’s a decision to be had: go for two to force Toledo to not settle for a field goal late in the game to go into overtime, or play conservatively and just kick it to go up by 3.

Okay, so that might’ve been a bad example by playing the What If? game with you, but it doesn’t help that CMU hasn’t beaten Toledo since 2009, and this year’s game is at the Glass Bowl. A better example might be to show how these second-half defensive wins helped CMU last year.

They were down 14-10 at Ball State to open up the second half. The Cardinals were forced to punt after three plays on their first four drives to open up the next half. CMU responded to those stops with: punt, touchdown, punt, field goal. KeVonn Mabon fielded the next kickoff and took it to the house from 89 yards out to retake the lead by one, but CMU burned about five minutes off the clock on their next possession after their 11-play drive ended with a 34-yard field goal and held on to win 23-21. It was probably a game that shouldn’t have been as close as it was, but it’s a really odd example of how the defense helped bail CMU out of potential loss and keep them in the hunt for a West title with four games remaining on their schedule.

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I’ve yet to finalize my predictions on how this season will play out and I’m sure the Broncos are the fun pick to win the West, but it’s going to be really hard not to entertain CMU’s chances as much as it is for the usual suspects’ chances.