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Zeitler: Chippewas regain team balance, keep title hopes alive


Central Michigan running back Jonathan Ward runs against Northern Illinois Nov. 2 at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.

There was a return to balance in Central Michigan’s 48-10 home win over Northern Illinois on Nov. 2. The offense was firing on all cylinders, the defense was stout, and CMU head coach Jim McElwain offered a conserved amount of praise for his team.

"I think we proved that we're getting a little bit better," McElwain said. "Really a dominant performance."

CMU is now bowl-eligible at 6-4 overall and 4-2 in the Mid-American Conference while the Huskies fall to 3-6 overall and 2-3 in MAC play.

Offensively, it was a beautiful thing to watch. I’ve never seen the Chippewas execute to a higher degree. 

The offensive line had its way with the Northern Illinois defensive front; senior Jonathan Ward and sophomore Kobe Lewis saw big holes open at the line of scrimmage and cruised through them without being touched.

The pair of running backs took turns wreaking havoc from there, using a combination of agility and power to pick up nice chunks of yardage that kept the offense rolling.

Ward amassed 149 total yards on 20 carries and three receptions while Lewis ran for 143 yards on 17 carries. As a team, CMU tallied 327 yards on 50 attempts. 

The Chippewa receiver core had a really promising outing as well: junior Tony Poljan had 79 yards, redshirt freshman Ty Scott had 53 yards, sophomore Kalil Pimpleton had 50 yards, and all three players found their way into the end zone on the afternoon. Meanwhile, junior JaCorey Sullivan led all CMU receivers in yards gained with 88.

And the catalyst behind it all was senior Quinten Dormady. A week after I criticized his play as a Chippewa, Dormady delivered his strongest performance to date. The former Tennessee and Houston quarterback threw for 288 yards and three touchdowns behind the strength of a 75% completion rate.

Dormady was supported by the return of dominant play in the run game, but I’d be silly not to give him major props for CMU’s 38-point victory. 

The Chippewas were forced to punt once throughout the entire game, and even that single punt was necessary only after a 39-yard completion from Dormady to Ward was negated by a holding call.

CMU was extremely efficient the rest of the afternoon, gaining 615 yards on 75 plays -- good for 8.2 yards per play. That’s a credit to Dormady’s ability to orchestrate the offense and put his guys in position to make plays.

Credit for the win extends past the offense; the Chippewa defense came through by completely throttling the Huskies’ rushing attack while intercepting a trio of Northern Illinois pass attempts. 

The Huskies rushed for an embarrassing minus-23 yards in the first half -- and to be honest, it should’ve been even less. Northern Illinois' backs fought vigorously to minimize lost yardage, but each Chippewa did an incredible job of consistently sticking to his assignments and trusting his teammates to do the same.

In addition to snuffing out the Northern Illinois run game, CMU was relentless in harassing Huskies quarterback Ross Bowers. Redshirt freshman LaQuan Johnson sacked Bowers twice for losses of 20 and 11 yards. In the secondary, junior Gage Kreski and redshirt freshman Montrae Braswell hauled in an interception apiece while senior linebacker Michael Oliver snagged a pick as well. 

The Chippewas forced Huskie turnovers on four consecutive possessions in the second half, preventing any kind of comeback despite senior CMU kicker Ryan Tice’s three field goal misses.

“We came out in the second half and started slow,” Dormady said of his offense. “The defense got us some turnovers; we had a chance to get some points and just couldn’t punch it in.”

The failure to convert yardage into points in the second half was the only glaring weakness I could see in the Chippewas’ utter dismantling of Northern Illinois.

When evaluating his team, McElwain remembered the MAC preseason projections and the frustration of being predicted to again wallow in the cellar of the conference’s standings. 

”The team that’s in that locker room, at the beginning of the season was picked dead last in this conference,” McElwain said. “I think we proved that we’re getting a little bit better.”

With two games left on its regular-season schedule, CMU is still in the thick of things in consideration of the MAC West Division title. Sitting at 4-2 in conference play, only Ball State (4-4, 3-1 MAC) leads the Chippewas in the MAC West standings.

Western Michigan is 2-2 in conference play, but if the Chippewas and Broncos were both to win out for the rest of the season, WMU would hold the tiebreaker with a 31-15 head-to-head win over CMU on Sept. 28. Obviously, WMU has to lose again to give CMU the advantage.

With that said, Chippewa fans should have their eyes on the matchup between WMU and Ball State for some very important Tuesday MACtion: the game will be aired Nov. 5 on ESPN2 at 8 p.m.

If the Cardinals can beat the Broncos, CMU would need only to win each of its next two games to ensure an appearance in the MAC championship game.

The Chippewas play Ball State on Nov. 16 after this week’s bye; a victory over the Cardinals would levy both teams with two conference losses with CMU holding the head-to-head edge. 

If McElwain’s group can pull off the win over Ball State and follow it up with a black Friday home win over Toledo on Nov. 29, it’s very possible the Chippewas could go from a 1-11 campaign in 2018 to an appearance in the conference championship game.

I know. Those are two very tough games and quite a few hypotheticals are being thrown about. But still: what a turnaround that would be for CMU, with McElwain in his first year at the helm of the program.

As the final month of the MAC regular season unfolds, I’m excited to see where CMU positions itself.