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Zeitler: Central Michigan football commands attention in comeback win over Ball State


centralmichiganfootballoct5-1-35

Teammates congratulate Central Michigan quarteback Tommy Lazzaro after running for a touchdown against Eastern Michigan Oct. 5 at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.

As Ball State receiver Riley Miller hauled in a 19-yard touchdown to help put the Cardinals up 17 points over Central Michigan with 2:31 to play in the third quarter, I snapped my computer shut and tossed it onto the couch in my dorm’s common room.

“There goes CMU’s shot at the West Division title,” I said to my friends. 

Though I wasn’t able to watch the Chippewas live, I had been listening on the radio and following the live stats as the game unfolded. I listened as CMU dug itself a 20-3 hole due to a litany of turnovers, then found its track offensively only to trade touchdowns with the Cardinals over the next quarter of play.

With CMU down 41-24 with two minutes remaining in the third, I gave up on the Chippewas’ chances. I left my dorm to go to the new Five Guys with my friends. I would’ve felt bad about leaving prior to the end of the game, but it seemed the game’s script had already pretty much played out.

Before leaving, I had already formulated a column about the Chippewas’ woes away from Kelly/Shorts Stadium: in stark contrast to a perfect 5-0 home record, CMU was 1-4 as the visiting team in 2019 thus far, and all signs pointed to yet another road loss and the end of championship game ambitions.

I didn’t check my phone for updates while eating, and we went to a couple stores instead of returning to Kesseler Hall right away. As we perused a forest of fake Christmas trees at Menards, I at last thought to look at the final score -- fully expecting to see a double-digit Ball State victory.

I was wrong.

My jaw dropped in astonishment as I stared at the phone screen. The Chippewas had pulled it off, 45-44? 

How? 

In a word: tenacity.

“Signature wins sometimes happen when adversity hits, and we had a lot of it today,” said first-year coach Jim McElwain.

Led by seniors Jonathan Ward and Quinten Dormady, CMU’s offense rattled off an absurd 200 yards in the span of 16 minutes following Miller's touchdown with 2:31 in the third. 

With that said, it wasn’t the offense holding the Chippewas back the majority of the game; rather, it was the defense’s inability to keep Ball State from maintaining a three-score advantage.

But that changed in a heartbeat as the game entered its final quarter.

CMU forced two quick punts on the Cardinals’ first drives of the fourth and then held strong to limit Ball State to a field goal to keep it a one-score game at 44-38, thus giving the Chippewa offense the go-ahead to punch in a game-winning touchdown by Tommy Lazzaro with only a minute to play.

From there, Ball State never had a chance: the CMU defense didn’t even allow a yard before sophomore linebacker Troy Brown intercepted a last-ditch effort on 4th-and-10. 

It was an incredible display of will on the part of McElwain’s Chippewas: when the hopes of a berth in the Mid-American Conference championship game seemed out the window, McElwain’s group came roaring back – road woes be damned – to pull off the massive comeback and stay alive in the West title hunt.

And I missed it. Standing there amongst Menard’s spurious spruces, I felt guilty. There’s nothing more beautiful than a victory in gut-check time, and I’d missed it. 

But there’s no way I’m missing the tilt against Toledo (6-4, 3-3 MAC) on Nov. 29, when the Chippewas (7-4, 5-2 MAC) take the field at Kelly/Shorts at noon for an opportunity to punch a ticket to Ford Field and a shot at the MAC Championship.

It’s a real bummer that such a weighty game takes place when students are away from campus for the holiday, but at the same time, it’s never a bad thing to be playing important games late in November. 

On Nov. 26, the Chippewas will be rooting hard for a Northern Illinois upset over Western Michigan; as of now, the Broncos (7-4, 5-2 MAC) hold the head-to-head tie-breaker over CMU. Another Broncos win would knock CMU out of the running and lock WMU in as the MAC West champions.

If the Huskies can pull off the win against the visiting Broncos, CMU then must defeat a Rockets squad that will give McElwain’s group everything it can handle.  

In the event that a MAC title berth is assured with a win over Toledo, I won't be able to wait to be back in Mount Pleasant to see what the Chippewas can do with their opportunity on Black Friday. 

I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

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