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Zeitler: Chippewas in midst of season for storybooks in Jim McElwain's first year


Central Michigan tight end Tony Poljan and wide receiver Kalil Pimpleton celebrate after scoring a touchdown against New Mexico State Oct 12 at Kelly/Shorts Stadium. 

There are 130 teams in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision. Following the Central Michigan football team’s 1-11 campaign in 2018, the Chippewas finished No. 129 in the year-end FBS power rankings (shout-out to Connecticut for somehow being worse).

CMU had no conference wins -- actually, no FBS wins at all; the Chippewas’ only win of 2018 was an ugly 17-5 victory over Maine, which competes in the Colonial Athletic Association at the FCS level. 

As a result, head coach Jon Bonamego and his staff were ousted and replaced by Jim McElwain.

There was a lot of excitement over McElwain’s hiring; with a pedigree of coaching at high levels and flipping programs into conference powerhouses, the potential for a return to winning ways was there.

With that said, no one expected the change to be this fast.

A year removed from the worst season in CMU program history, McElwain’s Chippewas stand 7-4 overall and 5-2 in conference play. Most amazingly, CMU is one game away from winning the West Division of the Mid-American Conference.

At this point, the Chippewas control their own fate, something almost unthinkable coming into the season.

How did this all happen so quickly?

To be obvious, a really good coaching staff helps tremendously. But when push comes to shove, it’s up to the men on the playing field to get the job done.

It all starts at the quarterback position. Quinten Dormady and David Moore showed solid play behind center throughout the season, and over the past couple outings Dormady has really turned it on for the Chippewas. In the wins over Northern Illinois and Ball State, the former Tennessee and Houston quarterback has thrown for a combined 644 yards and completed 45 of his 59 pass attempts.

Dormady threw for three touchdowns against NIU, and his touchdown stats in November would likely be much higher if not for the efficiency of running quarterback Tommy Lazzaro, who has scored three rushing touchdowns in the past two games alone as a part of McElwain’s goal-to-go package.

The offensive productivity has taken an incredible uptick this season compared to when Tony Poljan quarterbacked in the 2018 season. Poljan made the move to tight end this year, and the 6-foot-7 junior has contributed greatly to the success of the 2019 season. His combination of size and strength has been invaluable both as a blocker and in the receiving core.

Speaking of the receiving core, the Chippewas boast arguably the best group in the MAC. Four CMU receivers exceed 400 yards receiving on the year: Poljan (411 yards), Tyrone Scott (503), JaCorey Sullivan (629) and Kalil Pimpleton (738). 

The quarterback-to-receiver connection is undoubtedly important, but just as crucial to the Chippewas’ success on offense has been the balance provided by the versatility of running backs Jonathan Ward and Kobe Lewis. The pair have combined for 1,790 yards on the ground this year in addition to 420 receiving yards.

Defensively, it took the first half of the season to find the right starters, but the winds have been in the Chippewas’ sails on defense for the majority of conference play. 

True freshman Kyron McKinnie-Harper and redshirt freshman Montrae Braswell have emerged as promising young cornerbacks who have learned a great deal as the season wears on. Sophomore Darius Bracy has also played well at corner mixing in with McKinnie-Harper and Braswell; his recent health issues could play a factor down the stretch for CMU if the other two main corners tire as games progress.

Meanwhile, senior veterans Michael Oliver and Da’Quaun Jamison have taken up the mantle as playmakers and on-field coaches for the defense, making changes to the alignment and coverages in the pre-snap. Jamison has made 51 tackles from the underneath safety/rover position while the inside linebacker Oliver has 65 total tackles to tie with Devonni Reed for second-most on the team thus far in the season.

With 74 tackles through 11 games, Troy Brown has enjoyed a breakout year at the linebacker position and leads the Chippewas in total tackles. He has also tallied 13 tackles for loss and holds the team lead for interceptions with three, including a game-clinching pick on fourth down against Ball State to stay alive in the MAC West title picture.

Jim McElwain and his staff have done an unbelievable job of flipping CMU back to a winning program after last season’s debacle, yet it’s the wealth of players who have gone out on a weekly basis to exact their “revenge tour” of sorts in the MAC.

And with each additional Chippewa victory, the turnaround gets crazier: a win over Toledo sends CMU to Ford Field for the MAC Championship Game, where a win over the Miami Redhawks of the MAC East would leave the Chippewas poised for the chance to take down a solid Power Five football team in the ensuing bowl game.

It’s been a satisfying year for the CMU football program already, but the potential is there to make it a season for the storybooks. In their noon game against Toledo at Kelly/Shorts Stadium today, the Chippewas plan to write the next chapter of their 2019 success story.