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Central Michigan heads to Ball State in MAC West showdown


Central Michigan running back Jonathan Ward stiff arms a Northern Michigan defender Nov. 2 at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.

Jim McElwain did not know a whole lot about the Mid-American Conference when he took over at Central Michigan. 

Through film study and almost an entire season under his belt, McElwain has been learning more and more about the conference. 

With two games remaining in his first season at the helm in Mount Pleasant, McElwain has the Chippewas in the thick of the MAC West Division race. 

A large part of how McElwain has been able to put his team in the position it is in was laying down the foundation back before the Chippewas even took a snap.

"The buying in piece had more to do with investing in themselves," McElwain said. "It was good to see, they've fought through a bunch, I'm proud of them for that and yet, they have a bunch more to play for."

When all is said and done, Central Michigan's season could be defined by its performance away from Kelly/Shorts Stadium this season. 

At home, the Chippewas are 5-0 and have been outscoring opponents 215-99 for an average of 43 points per game. Central Michigan has also been able to gain an average of 550 yards per game. 

Conversely, CMU has struggled on the road this season where it is 1-4. The Chippewas have been outscored by opponents, 172-67, on opponent turf this season and gain just 328.20 yards per game. 

When it comes to playing on the road, McElwain said that it is important for his players to understand that his players are only able to control what they can control, and both teams want to jump to a fast start in the game. 

"Yet, you've got to fight through some things that aren't great when you're playing on the road," McElwain said. "We've only done that once this year."

Central Michigan is coming off of its first of two bye weeks this season following a 10-game stretch to open the season, the longest in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

After playing Ball State on Saturday, the Chippewas will head into another bye week before their season finale at home against Toledo (Nov. 29). 

For Central Michigan to clinch the MAC West title, it needs to win out and hope chief rival Western Michigan loses on the road to Northern Illinois on Nov. 26. 

Junior fullback Hunter Buczkowski said that he and his teammates watch the other teams in the conference, especially when the conference moves select games to weeknights in November. 

"With the mid-week games, we definitely turn that on," Buczkowski said. "We just watch them and learn from them."

A Central Michigan loss to Ball State would make the path to the MAC Championship Game much more difficult. If the Chippewas were to lose against Ball State, they would need both the Cardinals and Broncos to lose their respective season finales. 

As for Central Michigan's upcoming game against Ball State, the Chippewas will have to contend with a strong combination in the Cardinal backfield. 

Caleb Huntley and Walter Fletcher have combined for almost 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. Huntley has outgained his counterpart, 856-484, and has six touchdowns. Huntley, a junior, averages 93.67 rushing yards per game. 

Under center, junior quarterback Drew Plitt has started strong for the Cardinals, completing 64% of his passes. Plitt has thrown for 2,125 yards and 17 touchdowns against just six interceptions. 

"That guy has a real control on what they're asking him to do," McElwain said. "I've been really impressed with, if the first thing isn't there he does a good job of coming to number two and lets the offense come to him a bit." 

Ball State's scoring offense ranks second in the Mid-American Conference with 32.8 points per game. Central Michigan ranks third in the conference by scoring 30.0 points per game. 

In terms of turnovers, the Cardinals are top-ranked in the conference and are 17th in the FBS with a plus-six turnover margin. 

For Central Michigan to find success in its final road game of the season, McElwain said that the team must rely on the preparation that he and the rest of the coaching staff use throughout the week.

"It's two teams scrapping it out and we'll see who comes out on top," McElwain said. "Ultimately, they have to understand that they control the outcome of the game." 

Central Michigan (6-4, 4-2) @ Ball State (4-5, 3-2)

Time: 3:30 p.m.

Date: Nov. 16, 2019

Stadium: Scheumann Stadium

Location: Muncie, Indiana

Odds: BSU -2.5

Over/Under: 60.5

TV: CBS Sports Network (John Sadak and Randy Cross)

Radio: 98.5 WUPS (Adam Jaksa and Brock Gutierrez)