OPINION: Football grades following 2017 season
Despite falling 37-14 to Wyoming in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, the Central Michigan football team accomplished multiple feats 2017 season.
The Chippewas (8-5) earned eight wins for the first time since 2009. The Chippewas, who finished the regular season on a five-game winning streak, went 4-0 on the road in Mid-American Conference play and earned victories over in-state rivals Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan.
After the completion of the 2017 season, football beat writers Andrew McDonald and Evan Petzold grade the Chippewas' offense, defense and special teams.
Andrew: It's hard to ignore the first half of the season. CMU had a hard time getting the offense going, which led them to a 3-4 record after homecoming. The momentum shifted on Dec. 1 when CMU scored 21 straight points to beat Western Michigan for the first time in over four years. Quarterback Shane Morris threw 14 touchdowns and only two interceptions over the final five regular season games. Sophomore running back Johnathan Ward rushed for over 1,000 yards and scored seven of his 10 touchdowns in the final five games. CMU could not avoid turnovers against Wyoming in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, but averaged over 28 points in each of 13 games.
Evan: Without some top receivers early in the season, Morris pushed CMU’s offense to success in the 2017 season. He was somewhat responsible for the three-game losing streak, which included losses at Syracuse, against Miami (Ohio) and at Boston College. But, once tight end Tyler Conklin and wide receiver Corey Willis returned in CMU’s 26-23 win over Ohio in Week 6, the Chippewas took off to win six of their last seven games in the regular season. Ward finished with 179 carries for 1,017 yards and 10 touchdowns, along with catching 48 passes for 470 yards and three scores. CMU ranked tied for 43rd in the nation with 255.7 passing yards per game and 103rd with 134.1 rushing yards per game. When the entire offense was healthy, the Chippewas were tough to beat.
Andrew: The Chippewas weren't perfect, but their turnover advantage was significant. CMU finished the season as the No. 2 team in the country in turnovers gained with 19 interceptions and 12 fumbles recovered. Senior defensive back Josh Cox and sophomore defensive back Sean Bunting combined for 11 of the Chippewas 19 picks. Junior linebacker Malik Fountain led the team in tackles with 89 and senior defensive end Joe Ostman managed 14 sacks, which was tied for the top spot in the country. Defensive coordinator Greg Colby put together a solid unit this past season that stood tall after offensive turnovers.
Evan: On the defensive end, CMU was spectacular. The Chippewas ranked 68th in the country, only allowing 27.5 points per game. Prior to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, CMU was ranked No. 1 in turnovers gained with 12 fumble recoveries and 19 interceptions. Now, head coach John Bonamego’s squad sits in second place. Ostman logged 1.27 sacks per game, which led the nation. He finished with 14.0 sacks in 11 games, along with forcing three fumbles. As for the interceptions crew, senior Cox led the way with six picks. He was followed by Bunting, who earned five. From the defensive line to the secondary, the Chippewas posted some outstanding numbers in the 2017 season.
Andrew: Transfer kicker Michael Armstrong kicked 7-for-11, and scored 66 total points to rank him 89th in the nation. Junior punter Jack Sheldon was ranked fourth in the Mid-American Conference in punting, recording 3,253 yards on 75 attempts. Despite his two muffed punts against WMU, senior wideout Mark Chapman handled most punts. Sophomore running back Jerrod Davis had the only kick return touchdown for CMU — going 98 yards to the house against Kent State.
Evan: Of all NCAA Division I kickers, Michael Armstrong ranked 89th in points with 66 points. He made 45-of-46 extra points and buried 7-of-11 field goal. Armstrong struggled with field goals, missing two from 30-39 yards and two from 40-49 yards. He never attempted a field goal greater than 50 yards and his long was a 39-yard field goal. Sheldon was fourth-best in the MAC, accumulating 3,253 yards on 75 punts. While the Armstrong and Sheldon would have given the Chippewas a high special teams grade, CMU struggled returning kickoffs and punts during the season. The struggle returning the ball almost lost CMU a few games.
Head coach John Bonamego
Andrew: Fans who root for the CMU football team were beginning to grow restless. While making bowl games, earning a share of a MAC title and producing winning seasons are all accomplishments, beating WMU goes beyond just the results on the field. It's personal for anyone involved with the CMU football program and coming into the season, Bonamego was winless against the Broncos. That changed with an epic comeback this season in Kalamazoo, based off of some risky play calls and a second half onside kick. It was the headline on the Chippewas best season in over a decade and earned the coach a contract with CMU through 2022. What's next? Winning bowl games. Bonamego is 0-3 in bowl games and the last two have ended in blow out results. That has to change, and the loss to Wyoming is the blemish on the 2017 season.
Evan: CMU dropped three-straight games early in the season to Miami (Ohio), Boston College and Ohio and Bonamego had a decision to make. He had the choice to remain with Morris or make the switch to backup quarterback Tony Poljan. In the end, sticking with Morris was clearly the correct decision, as the transfer led the Chippewas to multiple comeback wins and a trip to a bowl game. Following a weak Homecoming performance against Toledo, Bonamego took the blame for poor play calling, made corrections and turned the offense around for the rest of the season. The next achievement for Bonamego is to win a bowl game with CMU, which he needs to make happen in the very near future.