Central Michigan finds turning point, already 'light years' ahead of 2018
Before the Central Michigan football team suited up for a matchup against in-state opponent Eastern Michigan, Jim McElwain preached to the Chippewas.
He emphasized the improvement he's seen over the last 10 months.
The first-year coach described his players as "light years" ahead of where they were when he arrived in Mount Pleasant in December 2018 to take over a broken 1-11 program.
Following a 31-15 loss to arch-rival Western Michigan last weekend, Central Michigan responded. For the first time under McElwain, the team put together a "complete win" on both sides of the ball.
McElwain said multiple leaders stepped up and spoke to the team in the locker room – an attempt to make sure a repeat of the game against the Broncos didn't occur this time around.
Whatever was said in that locker room, it worked.
"Nothing was changed," McElwain said. "We did our routine. They understand the importance of working hard against each other to get yourself better. Today, it proved itself out."
The Chippewas (3-3, 2-1 Mid-American Conference) posted a convincing 42-16 victory over the Eagles on Oct. 5 at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.
McElwain's unit compiled 587 total yards – 279 passing, 308 rushing.
Junior quarterback David Moore completed 15 of 24 passes for 279 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Senior running back Jonathan Ward carried the ball 12 times for 132 yards and two touchdowns, adding three receptions for 73 and a score through the air.
"I don't think we left any doubt where our program is," McElwain said. "They have come light years in a short period of time, but I'm not sure our fanbase as seen it in its entirety."
In the 2018 season, Eastern Michigan won the contest, 17-7. That battle was highlighted by now-tight end Tony Poljan's 39 passing yards.
Moore wasn't on the roster; Ward was injured.
The other quarterback that played in the 10-point loss to EMU last season was Austin Hergott, who has also moved to tight end. He completed two passes for 22 yards while throwing an interception.
Spending less than one year under a new coaching staff has already made a difference. The Chippewas have reached a turning point.
At least, McElwain hopes that's the case.
But there's still work to do.
"Hope ain't a great word," McElwain said. "You have to go out and prove that it's the turn of a corner. I believe in this team. I really do.
"What I'm most proud of is I know how far this program has come in a short, short period of time."
If anything, McElwain said the 26-point victory against the Eagles showed the Chippewas are capable of winning all four quarters in all facets.
When McElwain took over the program, he was adamant that CMU would make explosive plays, score often and put fans in the stands.
The explosives and early scoring haven't been part of the team's makeup to this point, but that changed against Eastern Michigan.
"You know what," McElwain said, "we answered that today."
It started with the coin toss.
Central Michigan won the toss and elected to begin with the football. McElwain attacked EMU's secondary from the beginning, allowing Moore to air it out deep on two occasions. Both were complete passes to junior receiver Jacorey Sullivan.
The drive was capped off by Ward's 3-yard touchdown up the middle for a 7-0 lead with 12:21 remaining in the first quarter.
Seven plays for 75 yards in 2:39 to open the game.
"We took the first drive down the field and sent a statement that way," McElwain said.
It didn't stop there.
On the first play following an interception from safety Alonzo McCoy with 12:45 left in the first quarter, Moore slung the ball toward slot receiver Kalil Pimpleton.
The 5-foot-9, 175-pound speedster caught the pass and broke loose. Nobody was able to catch him en route to an 80-yard touchdown for a 14-3 edge.
It was the longest touchdown pass since two former players – quarterback Cooper Rush and wide receiver Corey Willis – hooked up for an 85-yard score in 2016 against Virginia.
The following drive featured more of Moore, as he threw a pass to Ward over the middle and let the senior back take it 64 yards to the end zone.
"We have to continue doing it as we go through the season," McElwain said. "To be able to get some of those explosives, that really helps."
Ward put the game out of reach with 45 seconds left in the third quarter on an 86-yard touchdown carry, the longest of his career.
His second-longest rushing score occurred on a 79-yard carry against Eastern Michigan in 2017.
"We came in this week, locked in and got ready to go," Ward said. "We knew this game had to be a statement game."
The play calling was formulated in a way that hasn't been seen to this point in 2019.
And it's not just McElwain that believes the 42-16 victory against Eastern Michigan might serve as a turning point.
Senior safety Da'Quaun Jamison, a leader of the defense and team, said the blowout was "absolutely" a program-changing experience.
"It shows, not only to us but to the fans, that when you come to Kelly/Shorts, it's going to be tough when you walk into this environment. We're starting to build that."
As for the improvement factor, Jamison said the Chippewas showcased that growth by the way they handled back-to-back games against in-state opponents – even after the first ended in a loss.
"Just the mindset we walk into the building with," he said. "Even taking that loss last weekend, we forgot about it and moved on to the next opponent.
"We can't dwell on the past. We don't get back time."