Film review: Analyzing how Central Michigan racked up 48 points on Northern Illinois
Jim McElwain called it "a dominant performance."
His Central Michigan squad racked up a season-high 615 yards and forced three turnovers en route to a 48-10 shellacking of Northern Illinois Nov. 2 at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.
The Chippewas got 288 yards from graduate transfer senior quarterback Quinten Dormady and a combined 281 yards from their two prominent running backs, senior Jonathan Ward and sophomore Kobe Lewis.
Sophomore wide receiver Kalil Pimpleton and junior wide receiver JaCorey Sullivan were featured in the passing game, each going over 50 yards.
What ensued Saturday afternoon could be considered the finest performance of the young McElwain era. It got the squad to six wins, ensuring bowl eligibility for the first time since 2017.
It was Central Michigan's largest conference win since a 56-9 blowout at Ball State on Oct. 21, 2017.
But how did the offense flow so successfully? Why were running lanes so wide open? Defensively, what looks did coordinator Robb Akey throw at NIU quarterbacks redshirt senior Ross Bowers and redshirt junior Marcus Childers to force the three interceptions?
Let's break it down.
It started right away. The Chippewas won the coin toss and elected to kick the ball away, bucking a trend that has been set in weeks prior.
McElwain, who had previously preferred to take the ball to open the game, wanted his team to make a statement defensively to start the contest.
"We made a decision early in the week that we were gonna start on defense," McElwain said. "To get that quick field position was huge."
First quarter, 10:37: Central Michigan facing a third-and-6 from the Northern Illinois 14-yard line.
In an obvious passing down inside their red zone, the Huskies elect to substitute a linebacker with a safety, choosing to run what is called "nickel." This means that instead of the usual four defensive backs on the field, there will be five.
Dormady lines up in a shotgun set with Lewis to his left and Pimpleton to his right. He motions Lewis out wide to the left, creating a "three-by-one" look.
The decision to motion Lewis out of the backfield proves to be a tendency breaker. In games past, the Chippewas have used this same personnel scheme, however it's always Pimpleton who motions out wide.
This time, Pimpleton stays put.
Lewis lines up nearest to the sideline on the left side, joining redshirt freshman receiver Tyrone Scott and junior tight end Tony Poljan on that half of the field. Of the three, Lewis is nearest to the Chippewa sideline. Sullivan is all alone on the right side.
Redshirt-freshman linebacker Nathan Harman shuffles out to cover Lewis, indicating that the Huskies are in man coverage.
On the snap of the ball, Pimpleton begins to run toward the sideline before sharply turning upfield. Recognizing the man coverage, Dormady wastes no time zipping the ball to Pimpleton.
Based on their alignment, the Huskies are forced to have senior safety Mykelti Williams cover Pimpleton. However, Williams is lined up five yards off the ball, a margin that increases to nine when he backpedals on the snap, leaving Pimpleton wide open.
The unsung hero of this play is Sullivan. His post route takes the corner on the right half of the field out of the play, giving Pimpleton tons of open space. Pimpleton makes the catch, sidesteps Williams, and trots into the end zone for the first score of the afternoon
"We kinda felt like we had the opportunity to isolate him (Pimpleton), we got him in man," McElwain said. "Obviously Q made the right read and got it to him in a hurry, and then he was able to make a guy miss which is something he's really good at."
First quarter, 6:34: Central Michigan facing a first-and-goal from the NIU 3-yard line.
One play earlier, Dormady hooked up with Poljan for a 40 yard gain. Instantly after the play, Dormady runs off the field, replaced by senior quarterback Tommy Lazzaro.
Lazzaro has become a wildcat-type quarterback of sorts for the Chippewas, handling a large chunk of short-yardage situations.
"He's been a true, valuable member of our football team from the get-go," McElwain said of Lazzaro. "We always kind of had a package for him and he's executing it well. Happy for him."
Lazzaro enters the game and lines up in a pistol set with Ward directly behind him. With the ball on the 3-yard line, the Huskies load the box expecting a run.
The Chippewas send in junior fullback Hunter Buczkowski, and he and Poljan line up behind their respective tackles – Poljan on the left and Buczkowski on the right. Scott is wide to the left opposite Sullivan, who is out to the right.
Against a five-man front, Lazzaro takes the snap and executes the read-option.
The goal of the read option is quite literally read the movement of the play side defensive end and decide where to go with the ball based on the movement of said end. If the end crashes toward the quarterback, the quarterback should keep the ball and run to the hole vacated. If the end stays put, a simple handoff is executed.
The victim of the Chippewa read option on this play is redshirt-senior defensive tackle Marcus Kelly, who is the outermost defender to the left side of the defense. Lazzaro takes the snap and reads Kelly's motion. Lazzaro reads Kelly's downhill attack, keeping the ball.
Buczkowski pulls across the field to lead block, and Kelly walks right into the junior fullbacks' waiting arms. The block frees up a running lane for Lazzaro, while each wide receiver runs a fade to take their respective corners out of the play.
After missing the last two games due to injury, Buczkowski made a big impact for his team through his blocking, both in passing situations and in short yardage situations such as this one.
"I thought Butch did some good things today," McElwain said of the junior fullback. "It won't show up in the box score, but he did some good things."
Against a loaded box with no defenders deep, there's nothing but running room for Lazzaro.
The play is executed perfectly. Lazzaro trots in to make the score 14-0 Chippewas just under 10 minutes in
First quarter, 0:51: First-and-10, Central Michigan from the NIU 16.
After entering the red zone again thanks to a long hookup between Dormady and Scott, Lazzaro quickly sprints onto the field. This time the Chippewas elect to lineup in the traditional shotgun, with Lewis lined up to the left of Lazzaro. Buczkowski again makes an appearance, lined up 1-yard behind and 1-yard to the right of the right tackle.
On the snap, Buczkowski pulls across the formation. While this is meant to be misdirection, it has no immediate effect on the Huskie defense. The running lane for Lewis initially looks small.
Junior guard Derek Smith and senior center Steve Eipper help clean it up.
On the snap, Smith and Eipper combo block NIU's redshirt-junior defensive tackle Jack Heflin, which gives Lewis a gap to squeeze through. Lewis finds some running room and cuts underneath senior tackle Clay Walderzak's punishing block of freshman linebacker Camari Harris. After making another man miss, Lewis trots into the end zone.
The rushing touchdown was the sophomore's ninth touchdown of the year. He and Ward have proven to be a more than formidable duo, giving the Chippewas an ability to run the ball – an aspect of the game they lacked last season.
Lewis said the key has been working together with his senior counterpart.
"Being behind Ward, he's teaching me a lot," Lewis said. "I'm growing every week."
The touchdown paired with senior kicker Ryan Tice's extra point makes the score 21-3 Chippewas.
Second quarter, 7:29: First-and-10, CMU from its own 35-yard line.
Dormady lines up in the shotgun, flanked by Lewis to his right. Buczkowski is yet again on the field in this package, lined up in his usual position – this time on the left side.
There are two receivers to the left and one to the right. On the snap, Dormady fakes the handoff to Lewis. With Lewis taking a fake and Buczkowski staying in for a block, this is just a three-man route.
Each of the two outside receivers, Scott and Sullivan, run vertical routes while Pimpleton runs a crossing route from the slot. The Huskies lined up in a four-man front with four linebackers, giving them just three defensive backs. Each of the three drops into coverage, each responsible for a third of the field. This look is called cover 3.
The play is designed to isolate Pimpleton across the middle of the field in front of the safety in the middle third of the field. It does just that, and Dormady fires a rocket in Pimpleton's direction. It hits Pimpleton square in the hands.
The ball ricochets off the hands of the sophomore receiver and into the waiting arms of a Huskie defender. However, the defender is unable to corral it and the ball gets popped up into the air again. Pimpleton dives over the pile of bodies and snags the ball to move the chains. In a season full of highs for the Virginia Tech transfer, this is perhaps his finest moment.
Second quarter, 4:59: Second-and-3 for the Chippewas from the NIU 39-yard line.
The Chippewa align themselves in their traditional shotgun set, this time with Poljan in at tight end on the right half, while Buczkowski off the field.
Pimpleton is all by himself wide to the right, while Scott is in the slot to the left next to Sullivan.
Scott comes in motion pre-snap, causing a fatal mix-up for the Huskies. Williams, who was exploited earlier in the game, walks up from his safety position to account for the threat of a possible jet-sweep with Scott, who had a carry for 15 yards on a similar play earlier in the game.
If the Huskies game planned for this type of offensive action, they likely planned on walking the safety down while the three remaining defensive backs seamlessly rotated into cover 3.
If that's the case, redshirt-sophomore Dillon Thomas did not get the memo.
On the snap, Pimpleton takes both the safety, senior Trayshon Foster, and Thomas out of the play. Foster is simply covering his third while Thomas trailed Pimpleton's post route, likely thinking he was supposed to be in man-to-man coverage.
Thomas' mistake leaves Poljan wide open on a wheel route. Dormady takes advantage of this, hitting him in stride for a 39-yard touchdown to make the score 28-3.
"Tony's very versatile," Dormady said of the junior tight end. "He played quarterback, so he sees things differently out there. He's a huge asset to this team."
Throughout this offensive explosion, the Chippewa defense has held its own.
To this point in the game, they've allowed just three first downs. However, on the ensuing drive, the Huskies find pay dirt as Bowers hooks up with redshirt-senior receiver Spencer Tears to make the score 28-10.
Second quarter, 0:49: Central Michigan faces second and nine from the NIU 16.
Per usual, it's Dormady out of the shotgun. NIU lines up in a 4-4 look and send a stunted blitz on the snap. Two linebackers blitz and Dormady has little time to get rid of the ball.
The credit for this play goes to offensive coordinator Charlie Frye, who created the route combination that perfectly combats this defense.
The 4-4 look means the Huskies will again be in cover 3. The Chippewas have Sullivan and Pimpleton stacked wide to the left, Poljan in tight to the right and Scott out wide right.
Poljan runs a corner route toward the pylon, taking one corner with him. Pimpleton and Sullivan each run post routes, taking care of the other two defenders.
Scott is the beneficiary, running a 3-yard drag route through the space vacated by the blitzing linebackers. He's wide open, catching the ball at the 11-yard line. He immediately cuts upfield and fights his way into the end zone to put the Chippewas up 38-10 heading into halftime.
Third quarter, 9:14: Third-and-14 NIU on its own 44-yard line.
Already down four scores, the Huskies needed a strong drive to start the second half. However, faced with a third and long, they're stuck in a obvious passing situation.
Akey knows what's coming, therefore he only sends four rushers. This allows the Chippewas to have seven defenders against only four Huskie receivers.
Central Michigan is able to get pressure on Bowers with just the four defensive linemen, one of whom, redshirt freshman LaQuan Johnson, hits Bowers as he throws. The Chippewa secondary is in zone, and senior linebacker Michael Oliver can sit in his zone and intercept the pass. He returns the ball 22 yards, giving the Chippewas excellent field position.
"I saw him scrambling out and I knew he didn't have too many different threats behind me," Oliver said. "When he threw it short, I said, 'This is my opportunity.'"
The Chippewas are unable to capitalize on the turnover as their drive ends with a missed field goal.
Third quarter, 7:18: First-and-10 for the Huskies from the Chippewa 31.
NOTE: No footage was available for this play
Northern Illinois is able to get a little bit of momentum, stringing together some chunk plays to get the ball into Chippewa territory. Bowers hits Cole Tucker for 18 yards, a personal foul by Chippewa junior Muhamed Diallo adds 15 more, and a completion from Bowers to Marcus Jones goes for 11 to get the Huskies to this position.
Bowers drops back and looks downfield. Again, he is hurried and forces the ball downfield.
Central Michigan's junior safety Gage Kreski undercuts the throw and intercepts the pass. Kreski returns the interception 32 yards, giving the Chippewas good field position once again. The interception was Kreski's second of the season.
"I just think (Kreski's) doing a good job on film studying and knowing his role in the defense," said senior safety Da'Quaun Jamison of his secondary counterpart. "He's just out there making plays."
Another missed field goal nullifies the turnover.
3:52 Third Quarter: Second and eight for NIU from the Chippewa 38
Desperate to get something going, the Huskies resort to the quick passing game. Head coach Thomas Hammock and offensive coordinator Eric Eidsness call a play that is designed to pick up quick yards while exploiting the Chippewas in man coverage.
The Huskies run a two-man concept on the left side of the field that is designed to be a quick hitter. The tight end, redshirt senior Daniel Crawford, runs into the flat while the receiver, who happens to be junior Tyrice Richie, runs some sort of vertical route to take the corner out of the play.
With the safety being so far back, this usually is a sure thing for quick yards.
However, Central Michigan safety Willie Reid crashes hard on the tight end and hits him, causing the ball to pop into the air. Redshirt freshman Montrae Braswell settles under the deflection and makes the interception.
Fourth quarter, 14:20: First and goal Central Michigan from the NIU 3-yard line.
With Lazzaro permanently in for Dormady due to the blowout score, the read option becomes more of a possibility in this situation.
Sure enough, the Chippewas call for the read-option on first-and-goal.
Lazzaro again reads the end, and Buczkowski once again pulls across the formation to crack block the defensive end. The end stays put this time, allowing Lazzaro to hand the ball off to Ward. Ward is initially stood up, but he gets an extra jolt from both sophomore tackle Luke Goedeke and Lazzaro to propel him into the end zone.
Tice adds a field goal to make the final score 48-10.
The Chippewas walked away with their sixth win of the year, five of which have come at home. They return to action at 3:30 p.m. on Nov. 16 at Ball State.