Petzold: Give Central Michigan's football team credit. Nobody expected this
Sitting at a table in the back of the Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort conference room for Central Michigan Life's 100th anniversary celebration, my lips touched a glass filled with CM Life's beer, Centenni-Ale, while my fingers simultaneously checked college football scores.
An unusual reality set in: I wasn't covering Central Michigan football's most important game to this point in the 2019 season.
The Chippewas trailed Ball State by 17 points, 20-3, with 2:01 remaining in the second quarter. In a contest where Central Michigan needed a win to keep its Mid-American Conference West Division championship hopes alive, there wasn't much positivity.
By the time Central Michigan President Bob Davies came over to chat with me, the score was 41-31 with after a 1-yard score from senior running back Jonathan Ward with 1:04 left in the third quarter.
Davies wanted to know my thoughts on the game, something he so often does to engage with members of the student newspaper.
But Davies wasn't able to get the game streamed on his phone, so he was following along on Twitter. Part of that was CM Life's coverage, where staff reporters Andrew Loveland and Christian Booher were at Scheumann Stadium in Muncie, Indiana.
While Davies was on stage to speak about CM Life, senior backup quarterback Tommy Lazzaro danced into the end zone from 5 yards out.
In the moment, I said to myself, "There's no way this is happening."
Davies concluded his speech by telling the audience that the score was 41-38 with 13:10 left in the fourth quarter, all thanks to Lazzaro's score. He stressed the turn of the program in Jim McElwain's first year as coach.
Trailing 44-38 with 1:01 remaining, Lazzaro scored again – this time a 2-yard touchdown run – to give his team a 45-44 lead.
Linebacker Troy Brown intercepted Ball State quarterback Drew Plitt on the final drive of the game to secure the victory.
"Signature win for the Chippewas and a group of guys that no one gave a chance," said first-year coach Jim McElwain. "Each side of the ball did their job when they needed to to get a win. That locker room, those kids, what they've chosen to do, it's a choice. I'm just really proud of them."
"You never saw any panic. That was the thing I really liked."
Shortly after the win, before my speech on the top three sports stories in CM Life history with 2009 Central Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame inductee Terry Foster and The Detroit News sports writer Matt Schoch, I stepped out in the hallway to calm my nerves.
Before I could get back to the conference room, Davies appeared. Once again, he wanted to talk about sports.
"Did you see we won?" Davies questioned with excitement.
"Sure makes things interesting," I responded. "They just need Western Michigan to lose against Northern Illinois."
"Well, we also have to beat Toledo," Davies said.
He's absolutely correct.
If that situation happens in the final week of football games, Central Michigan will make its way to Ford Field for the MAC Championship game as the MAC West representatives.
Western Michigan's Nov. 26 game against Northern Illinois is at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb, Illinois. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m., and the Broncos are 1-4 on the road.
By the time Central Michigan plays Toledo on Nov. 29 at Kelly/Shorts Stadium in Mount Pleasant, the Chippewas will know for certain if a shot at the MAC Championship game is at stake.
For what it's worth, McElwain's squad is 5-0 at home.
The Chippewas were picked to finish last in the MAC and have now locked in at least a top-half finish in the West Division, and they have a clear shot at finishing in first place.
"Signature wins sometimes happen when adversity hits," McElwain said. "We had a lot of it today. For a team that was picked dead last, as this group was, to be where they're at right now, credit goes to those players."
The players, judging by post-game reactions, are amped for the chance to do something that nobody expected after a 1-11 overall record in the 2018 season.
"For the next four years, we are going to win it every year," said freshman cornerback Demarcus Governor on the field after the win. "For the next four years."
"Chippewas are back, baby," sophomore safety Devonni Reed added. "Never count us out. They picked us dead last, dead last. We are on top now."
"Dead last, bro," junior wide receiver Bailey Edwards chimed in, clearly showcasing his dislike for those that doubted his team.
Sorry, Bailey. I was one of those voters.
Wrapping up my conversation with Davies, I told him it has been a dream of mine to cover a conference championship game while working for the student newspaper.
I never thought I'd get the chance.
But at 7-4 overall and 5-2 in the Mid-American Conference, the possibility of winning the MAC West Division has become more clear for Central Michigan.
"I wouldn't be opposed to making a trip to Ford Field," I told him.
"Neither would I," Davies responded, smiling.
McElwain has changed the program.
Davies knows it. I understand it.
Even more importantly, the players on the team believe.
You should too.