Three takeaways from Central Michigan's 26-21 loss in MAC championship
Senior quarterback Quinten Dormady escaped the pocket and set his feet near the base of the numbers painted at the 40-yard line.
His feet pounded the turf below as he prepared to launch a prayer toward the end zone.
He heaved the ball in the direction of two receivers running step for step down the sideline. Junior JaCorey Sullivan stopped just past the 10-yard line in preparation for Dormady's throw, which was going to come up short of the end zone.
In this instant, there was a chance.
However, the ball was batted around, touching several hands, and fell harmlessly to the blue turf past the white stripe that signifies the goal.
In the next instant, the Miami RedHawks were Mid-American Conference champions. Central Michigan experienced both peaks and valleys in Saturday's contest at Ford Field, ultimately leaving the field as runners-up. Their heads hanging as they entered the tunnel.
"I've probably never been more proud of a group that I've been associated with in my coaching career," said first-year coach Jim McElwain. "Obviously, we didn't finish it the way we would like to."
Here are three takeaways from Central Michigan's 26-21 loss to Miami (Ohio) in the MAC championship game:
In big games, coaches love to pull out all the metaphorical stops. For this reason, it was expected that offensive coordinator Charlie Frye and company would break out a concept that fans had not seen before.
What was not expected, however, was a complete overhaul in approach.
After struggling to get momentum on their first three possessions, Frye's group began to open up the playbook. The Chippewas showed numerous looks that had not been seen to this point in the season.
"I think we needed to jump-start ourselves a little bit," McElwain said. "They(the trick plays) are part of our 'dirty dozen' that we carry every week."
Senior backup quarterback Tommy Lazzaro worked the run-pass option to perfection and scored the Chippewas' first touchdown.
He looked at junior tight end Tony Poljan and faked a pass to force the defensive back to bite and open up a running lane for a 21-yard touchdown.
Early in the fourth quarter, Lazzaro once again came through in a 2nd-and-inches with a perfect read in the RPO scheme. This time, the read was the opposite as he hit Tony Poljan for 24 yards. Lazzaro finished with a pair of touchdowns and 48 yards on six carries.
"We practiced that too much," Miami coach Chuck Martin said of defending Lazzaro. "I'll have to look whether the plan or the execution of the plan or just when you run the quarterback, it's really hard."
The Chippewas also experimented with a flea-flicker that went for a first down and tried the fabled "Philly Special" in another third down situation.
Dormady was forced to roll out in many situations due to the RedHawk pass rush and was able to make quality throws on the run, including an 11-yard strike to redshirt freshman Tyrone Scott.
Central Michigan's offensive adjustments caught Miami off guard throughout the second quarter, allowing the offense to get going.
Defense implodes late
Heading into the locker room, Central Michigan held all the momentum. Junior defensive end Troy Hairston sacked backup quarterback AJ Mayer as the clock ran out and the Chippewas led 14-10 as the clock hit zero.
At the break, the RedHawks had just 61 yards of total offense. Freshman quarterback Brett Gabbert had completed just three of his 11 passes for 25 yards and the Chippewas had surrendered just three first downs.
Miami had help from errors made by Central Michigan's special teams unit, as they used a 98-yard kick return to open the game and a failed fake punt by the Chippewas in the second quarter to obtain their 10 first half points.
However, that all changed in the second half. After the Chippewas punted on their first possession, the RedHawks marched down and scored. Central Michigan's reign of defensive dominance was over.
Then came the penalties.
Central Michigan jumped offsides at two separate key defensive junctures, keeping RedHawk drives alive. Gabbert connected with receiver Jack Sorensen for a 25-yard score to give Miami the lead midway through the third quarter, and while the RedHawks were kept out of the end zone for the remainder of the contest, the Chippewas struggled to get off the field in critical moments.
"I don't think really anything different like anything happened where we were able to notice something and make an adjustment," Sorenson said following the win. "I think it was just the confidence at halftime."
Sophomore linebacker Troy Brown was called for targeting late in the final quarter, moving Miami out of the shadow of its goal line. Miami kicker Sam Sloman nailed a 48-yard field goal later to cap the drive and put his team up two scores.
On Central Michigan's onside kick attempt, sophomore defensive back Rollian Sturkey appeared to have recovered the football. However, Sturkey was called offsides. On the re-kick, he was once again offsides and the RedHawks kept possession.
Ultimately, the Chippewas couldn't stay out of their own way.
Second half offensive struggles
The Chippewas looked to be hitting their stride heading into the locker room. Dormady was making plays through the air, Lazzaro was an effective option on the ground and the offense looked to be peaking.
The halftime break took the air out of the offense.
Central Michigan punted on each of its first four drives of the half.
In the third quarter, the Chippewas were outgained, 153-58. The Chippewas' first drive of the fourth quarter ended when Dormady was intercepted in the red zone. Although they were able to put together a touchdown drive late in the contest, it was too little, too late.
"Miami did an outstanding job of taking away a lot of things that we did well all year," McElwain said. "They're a really good football team and played that way."
Senior running back Jonathan Ward and his sophomore counterpart Kobe Lewis combined for just 57 yards. Miami was able to neutralize a normally potent Chippewa running attack, causing the game plan to become one dimensional.
Dormady and his offense were unable to get things going at the right time, falling short as a result.