Tommy Lazzaro's run package lone bright spot for Central Michigan
Chuck Martin raised his voice and clapped his hands six times in frustration while his players, wide receiver Jack Sorenson and kicker Sam Sloman, smiled at each other.
All three knew Miami (Ohio), the Mid-American Conference champion, had been throttled by one player from the Central Michigan football team – Tommy Lazzaro.
The senior backup quarterback was the lone bright spot of the Chippewas. He was the only player the RedHawks didn't know how to stop in their 26-21 win Saturday at Ford Field.
"You had to bring that up?" Martin said, nearly screaming at this point yet still flashing a smile. "God, you know how long we practiced to defend when he comes in the game? Awful."
Entering the MAC title game, Lazzaro had 27 carries for 108 yards and six touchdowns but was coming off back-to-back two-touchdown performances against Ball State and Toledo.
Martin spent countless hours reviewing Lazzaro on film. He thought he figured out how to shut down the Monument, Colorado native.
"No one stopped that package all year," Martin recalled saying to his team beforehand. "We're going to stop it. We've got the plan."
A short pause of silence filled the room.
"Obviously, we didn't have the plan," Martin said.
On Central Michigan's second offensive drive, Lazzaro entered for the first time on third-and-1 from the CMU 22. He scooted 5 yards for a first down.
The possession stalled, but Lazzaro was an important factor in the 14-play, 90-yard drive that succeeded it.
Backed up at the CMU 10 with 3:53 left in the first quarter, McElwain sent in Lazzaro. It was the first time this season the backup started an offensive drive.
Lazzaro immediately picked up 11 yards to give starting quarterback Quinten Dormady breathing room from the CMU 21.
"They do a lot of things," Martin said. "They run not too many plays, but there are so many formations and so much movement, so you can't just – you two guys have to do this because they always make somebody else do the job."
The next moment Lazzaro checked in, he only needed one play to score a touchdown. He took the snap, faked a handful and dashed to his left.
One defender had to make the choice between Lazzaro and fullback Hunter Buczkowski. The backup quarterback pump-faked a pass to Buczkowski, and the defender stuck with the fullback.
A hole in the defense opened up, and Lazzaro was able to run into the end zone from 21 yards out without being touched. He perfectly executed the run-pass option to tie the game, 7-7, with 11:46 left in the second quarter.
Martin was angry.
"That package, that was very frustrating for me today, that we didn't defend it very well at all," Martin said.
Lazzaro didn't play again until the third drive of the third quarter, and he moved the chains with a 6-yard gain on a third-and-1, but it was called back due to a holding call on wide receiver JaCorey Sullivan near the conclusion of the run.
The senior backup returned on second-and-1 from the CMU 34 in the fourth quarter. Instead of running the ball, he got Miami's defense – loading the box with linebackers and defensive linemen – to bite on his fake.
Resulting from the rare pass was a 24-yard completion to junior tight end Tony Poljan to the Miami 42. Two plays later, Dormady threw an interception.
"Our big thing was we're going to stop that," said Miami defensive tackle Doug Costin. "No one really has. It kind of sucks when we didn't, but whether it be from him just being that good of a player, or just maybe sometimes we didn't fit our gaps or we didn't read our keys, whatever it was, he got free and I got to give credit to him."
McElwain called on Lazzaro once more to enter the game on third-and-2 at the Miami 4-yard line with 1:24 left in the game. The team trailed 23-14.
Once again, it only took Lazzaro one play.
He scored from 4 yards out on another RPO, pulling the ball away from senior running back Jonathan Ward before dropping back and, eventually, tucking the ball, putting his head down and finding the end zone.
Pushing the Chippewas to a two-point deficit, 23-21, with less than 90 seconds remaining, Lazzaro didn't play on offense again in the loss.
"I'll have to look whether the plan or the execution of the plan or just when you run the quarterback, it's really hard," Martin said, trying to make sense of the mistakes.
He finished with six carries for 48 yards and two touchdowns while also completing his only pass for 24 yards. Lazzaro's season totals jumped to eight touchdowns on 33 carries. He's scored two touchdowns in three-straight games.
"He came in, he did what he did all season," Costin said.
Despite his success, Lazzaro only ran the ball six times and passed once in the title game.
As the offense stalled in the third quarter and top running backs Ward and sophomore Kobe Lewis were held to 50 total yards on 17 carries in the contest, McElwain said the problem was Miami's defensive line.
"I thought upfront they did a really good job handling what we were trying to do as far as with their front," McElwain said. "You know, they had a good plan. They just -- they just beat us, you know? It is what it is."
The one player the defensive couldn't stop was Lazzaro, and he spent a majority of that third quarter on the bench.