Football not looking past FCS powerhouse Maine

Defensive back Brandon Brown stairs down his opponent before the snap on Sept. 8 at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.

Maine is a school from the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), but Central Michigan football coach John Bonamego isn’t taking the Black Bears lightly. 

While Maine did not play in Week 3 due to a bye, the team is coming off a 31-28 victory against FBS opponent Western Kentucky. The Black Bears (2-0), ranked No. 13 in the FCS Top 25, continue in hot pursuit of the Chippewas (0-3) at 3 p.m. on Sept. 22 at Kelly/Shorts Stadium. 

“Maine has our full attention,” Bonamego said. “Their defense leads the nation in sacks (per game). (Defense) against the run, they are in the top 10. They have weapons. I’m impressed by what they do and how they do it.” 

Bonamego has an interesting tie to the University of Maine – it was his first college coaching destination. The now fourth-year head man of the Chippewas worked as an assistant coach from 1988 to 1991 under Tim Murphy (1987-88), Tom Lichtenburg (1989) and Kirk Ferentz (1990-92).  

New Offensive Spark

All while preparing for the Black Bears, CMU is working through a quarterback change. Following junior Tommy Lazzaro’s superb late performance in relief of redshirt sophomore Tony Poljan last week, the keys to the football team have been handed off to Lazzaro. 

Lazzaro will make his first Division I start against Maine on Saturday. His Week 3 performance was the first time he played in a game since 2015 for Dodge City Community College. 

"He has the ability to move the team down the field," Bonamego said of Lazzaro. "He's decisive and aggressive with his throws. I saw his ability to maneuver in the pocket and extend plays."

Lazzaro is nothing but excited for his first start in a Chippewas uniform. 

“The mindset might be a little different, but the preparation is the same,” Lazzaro said of moving from backup to starter. “I’ll be in Coach (Chris) Ostrowsky’s ear a little more.”

Bonamego said he expects Poljan to play wide receiver and tight end going forward, along with serving as the backup quarterback.  

Of the 129 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), the Chippewas are ranked No. 122 in total offense. 

One of the main issues with CMU has been the run game, specifically junior Jonathan Ward. Following 1,494 yards and 13 scores in 2017, he has yet to find the end zone this time around through three games played. 

For the second-straight week, during the designated media availability time, Ward declined an interview with Central Michigan Life

Bonamego spoke on Lazzaro’s passing ability directly opening up a multitude of options for the run game. 

“In our offense, a lot of things are predicated on the run-pass option,” Bonamego said. “Being able to complete balls down the field when that’s what the play call is for, that really balances things out and will give you better run numbers.”

In CMU’s 31-24 loss to Northern Illinois in Week 3, a few receivers emerged once Lazzaro entered. Redshirt freshman Julian Hicks, who had not caught a pass from Poljan all season, finished with seven receptions for 63 yards and a touchdown. All seven catches came from the hand of Lazzaro. 

“Being a younger guy, I was just waiting on my time,” Hicks said. “I was ready when the time came. Tommy strives off his own energy. He has his own fight inside him. We just feed off of that.” 

Bonamego also noted tight end Logan Hessbrook and offensive lineman Clay Walderzak have been cleared from prior injuries and will be active Saturday for the first time this season. 

Fountain Remains Sound

Senior linebacker Malik Fountain made 18 tackles, one tackle for a loss, and one sack against the Huskies. On the season, he has 35 tackles, of which 19 are solo tackles. 

Wearing the No. 21 last Saturday in honor of the late Derrick Nash and his aunt’s battle with breast cancer has fueled Fountain’s drive this season. 

“(Derrick) was a really good guy, and I wanted to have a good tribute for him,” Fountain said. “I had a lot on my mind before the game.”

While serving as a captain of the team, Fountain has made it a priority to teach the younger players on the team of Nash’s legacy, since his senior group was the last to truly know him. 

In May 2013, just three months after signing with CMU, Nash was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He underwent chemotherapy treatment and joined CMU in January 2014. He played in spring practice, including the annual Maroon and Gold Spring Game, before the leukemia returned. Nash died on June 22, 2015, after a two-year battle with cancer. 

“He was a hard worker and fought to the end,” Fountain said of Nash. “We need to keep it going and save that tradition.”

Scouting Maine

In its three-point defeat of Western Kentucky on Sept. 15, Maine fell behind 21-0 in the first quarter but stormed back for a 31-21 lead and hung on to take away a three-point victory. The field goal proving to be the difference was a 37-yard kick from Kenny Doak. 

The Hilltoppers, in Week 3, held a 14-3 lead over Louisville before the Cardinals stormed back for a 20-17 victory. Nonetheless, Maine took down an FBS opponent and is looking to do the same against the Chippewas. 

Maine is led by starting sophomore quarterback Chris Ferguson, who has been in the lead role since 2017. He was 11-for-28 through the air for 185 yards, three touchdowns and one interception against Western Kentucky. 

“He’s a very good deep-ball thrower,” Bonamego said. “He’s accurate and gets the ball out. He doesn’t make many mistakes.”

Junior Joe Fitzpatrick and freshman Ramon Jefferson are a one-two punch in the backfield for the Black Bears. Bonamego said the offensive line blocking for Fitzpatrick and Jefferson are young but tough and handling multiple sets from the front five could be tough for the Chippewas. 

Despite Maine being an FCS team, the Chippewas view them as a group with Mid-American Conference caliber. 

After all, it’s still two college football teams going at it on the gridiron.