'Lots to work on': Four days later, Jim McElwain remains pleased with debut win but can't sleep easy
Jim McElwain's had four days to think about it.
There are many firsts when taking over as the coach of a program. First day on the job, first press conference, first recruiting class, first spring practice, first fall practice and, most important of them all, the first game of the season.
McElwain's all-important moment came Aug. 29 at Kelly/Shorts Stadium. It was his coaching debut for Central Michigan. Since then, there's been ample time for him to digest the 38-21 victory over Albany, a Football Championship Subdivision program.
A lot can be understood in a four-day window, and the leader of the Chippewas has taken every second to his advantage.
"Our guys got a chance to really evaluate the film with not having to move forward to the next opponent," McElwain said. "Our focus has to be on ourselves, getting better."
Everything ties back to game day.
Remember, McElwain was preparing for that moment since Dec. 1, when he signed the paperwork to join the Chippewas. He's dealt with the same pressure twice before – Colorado State in 2012, Florida in 2015.
Seven years ago at Colorado State, the pressure was intensified against Colorado in an arch rivalry battle Sept. 1 in Denver. Down 14-3 near the conclusion of the second quarter, the Rams finally turned on the jets.
Quarterback Garrett Grayson threw a 32-yard touchdown pass, while kicker Jared Roberts converted field goals from 48 and 32 yards with 6:39 and 2:56 left, respectively. The end result was a 22-17 win.
He became the first Colorado State coach to win his debut since Jerry Wampfler in 1970. None of the Rams coaches before him ever took down the Buffs on their first try.
McElwain was different from those of the past. He was immediately dominant.
That's a successful debut.
The same happened at Florida, as McElwain broke the school record for points scored in a head coach's debut, passing the record of 51 points set by coach Ron Zook in 2002.
Florida scored 61 points that Sept. 5 night in 2015 against New Mexico State, which scored all its 13 points in the second quarter.
Quarterbacks Treon Harris and Will Grier combined for 379 passing yards and five touchdowns. The offense, as a whole, racked up 606 total yards.
Another successful debut.
When push comes to shove, Colorado State and Florida don't really matter anymore – especially not to McElwain.
"Every place is different and unique to wherever you are at," McElwain said. "For me, it’s to see the joy on the players’ face, realizing the work and commitment is something that showed up."
While his time at each stop was filled with new experiences and adventures, he's in Mount Pleasant. His job is to rebuild a broken, unorganized program that had a 1-11 record in 2018.
The first task of the project was winning a football game, something CMU had gone 341 days without.
There were positives and negatives. For starters, graduate transfer quarterback Quinten Dormady distributed the ball well, finding eight different receivers. He completed 27-of-37 passes for 285 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. Senior running back Jonathan Ward went for 211 yards from scrimmage with two touchdowns.
But when Ward pushed for extra yards, he wasn't able to keep his paws on the ball. He fumbled twice. Dormady did, too.
"This was a good building block," Dormady said. "There were plays we left out there, and that's something we'll have to get corrected moving forward."
With the game scoreless with 4:50 left in the first quarter, McElwain was faced with a 4th-and-4 situation. He could've easily let senior kicker Ryan Tice, who hit a 50-yard field goal later on, score three points.
That's not what happened.
The Chippewas lined up with sophomore running back Kobe Lewis to the right of Dormady. Redshirt freshman receiver Tyrone Scott and junior tight end Tony Poljan occupied the right side of the field; fellow wide receivers Keonta Nixon and Kalil Pimpleton owned the left side.
It was a corner route where Scott was able to sneak past his first defender, get behind the safety, make the catch from Dormady and trot into the end zone.
McElwain's first difficult call went swimmingly.
"It’s important that your guys know you believe in them, and I do," McElwain said. "Given the situations, we’ll continue to do that.
"The analytics point in that direction, as far as where you’re at on the field."
Central Michigan ended up with a 38-21 victory in McElwain's debut and the team's season opener.
The debuts at Colorado State and Florida were considered successes for McElwain. Even though CMU didn't dismantle a rival or put 60-plus points on the board, there was a sense of comfort Thursday night at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.
"There was never any panic on either side of the ball," McElwain explained. "As a football coach, knowing that was something we were worried about, seeing them respond was a good thing.”
And with a first-career game comes a second. For McElwain and the Chippewas, that'll be No. 19 Wisconsin in a hostile environment at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.
Trying to figure out how to manage Heisman Trophy hopeful Jonathan Taylor, a running back, and the tenacious defense on the other side of the ball have kept McElwain up at night.
The Badgers are no small task.
"It’s one of those things where you wish you had a short week, so you didn’t have as much time to roll around at night thinking about how you’re going to do it," McElwain said. "Every time you watch them, you see how physical they are, and how they play the game fundamentally sound."
In a 49-0 victory over South Florida, Taylor tallied 16 carries for 135 yards and two touchdowns. He added two receptions for 48 yards – each catch going for a touchdown. Four touchdowns in one game for one player.
McElwain might have a win under his belt, but he's not getting much sleep. He just hopes Taylor doesn't try to boost his Heisman Trophy status too much against the Chippewas.
“I hope he doesn’t try to win the Heisman in our game," McElwain said, jokingly. "He’s an unbelievable player, but I like our guys."
A few other notes on Central Michigan's 17-point win in the season opener and what's coming next:
– Redshirt freshman tight end Joel Wilson went down with an injury in the third quarter of Thursday's game. He was on crutches and carted off the field. McElwain said he will "probably, definitely" be out for the Wisconsin game, adding, "We are still waiting on some things to see the length of it."
– While Tice managed to prove himself to the old coaching staff, he did the same with McElwain's crew Thursday night. He made a 50-yard field goal with 8:35 left in the second quarter to take a 17-0 lead. "That was comforting," McElwain said. "He’s a guy we have a lot of trust in."
– Scott ended the game with a team-high 93 yards and two touchdowns on five receptions. While he impressed, McElwain was quick to express the need for consistency from the redshirt freshman. "The development of Ty, it was good to see him go be aggressive as a pass catcher," McElwain said. "He’s going to have to continue to grow for us and become a threat that’ll allow us to get some guys underneath."
– McElwain said he's excited for his crew to get a chance to play against Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium, noting it as "one of the great venues of all college football." There's also money on the table, a $1 million payout for the Chippewas regardless of the score. "People in our league, we have to go play these games. That supports the whole athletic department," McElwain added. "We become the avenue in that to be able to help out."
– Due to injuries, Wisconsin will be without right tackle Logan Bruss (left leg), safety Scott Nelson (right leg) and linebacker Izayah Green-May (right arm). All three players are typical starters. The Badgers could also be without senior linebacker Chris Orr (right leg), who is currently questionable.