Iron sharpens iron: Football team embraces practice scrimmages to help shine in games
In the Central Michigan football team’s 49-7 trouncing of Toledo to clinch the Mid-American Conference West Division title on Nov. 29, the Chippewa defense held a solid Rockets run game to 83 yards.
The win over Toledo marked the sixth game this season that the Chippewas have held their opponent to less than 100 yards rushing, and they’ve allowed over 200 yards on the ground in only one game (Ball State ran 47 times for 231 yards on Nov. 16).
Over the course of the 2019 season, CMU’s defense has given up an average of 118.3 rushing yards per game, good for 22nd in the Football Bowl Subdivision and one spot ahead of the Michigan Wolverines.
When asked to pinpoint what makes the Central Michigan defense so solid against the run, CMU senior running back Jonathan Ward grinned.
“Us,” he said. “Practicing against us.”
By “us," Ward means the Chippewa offense, which boasts a rushing attack that averages a hair under five yards per attempt (4.97) and has compiled 2,326 yards on the season. CMU ranks No. 38 in the FBS for rushing offense this season with 194 yards per game.
Ward leads the team with 1,072 yards on the ground, and sophomore back Kobe Lewis needs only 19 yards to join Ward in the 1,000-yard club this year.
With a one-two punch as potent as Ward and Lewis, the Chippewas scored 33 rushing touchdowns in the regular season. Ward lays claim to 15 of those rushing touchdowns and Lewis has 11.
“I feel as if me and Kobe Lewis are the best backs in the MAC,” Ward said. “We help complement the defense in practice, and then the defense helps to complement the offense.”
Senior linebacker Michael Oliver is in agreement that the running back duo are a big motivation to step up and make things happen on game day.
“As I always tell (sophomore linebacker) Troy (Brown), you gotta outdo ‘4’ and ‘5’ sometimes,” Oliver said in reference to Lewis and Ward, respectively. “They always go out on offense and score touchdowns and make people miss, so I just gotta go out there and do my job which is to hit people hard.”
Looking first at CMU’s defensive stats as a team and then at Oliver’s production this season, it’d be near impossible to say Oliver hasn’t done his job well this season.
As the team’s middle linebacker, Oliver has served as the anchor to the Chippewas’ success against the run and is second on the team with 73 total tackles on the year. His steady leadership and eight tackles in the dominating win over the Rockets earned him MAC Defensive Player of the Week honors.
The competition that exists between the defensive and offensive leaders is mutually beneficial; the two sides of the ball clash in battle throughout the week of practice scrimmages and go against some of the top talent in the conference on a daily basis, leading to a game day product that is ready for whatever the opposing team has to throw at them.
Head coach Jim McElwain has implemented consistent scrimmaging during practices, something he picked up on as the offensive coordinator under Nick Saban at Alabama from 2008-11.
“I think it’s important that you try to get as much speed of the game as you can during the week,” McElwain said. “I think our guys have embraced that a little bit, and it’s proven to them that in certain situations, it helps them.”
McElwain’s frequent use of intrasquad scrimmages have contributed to the biggest turnaround in the FBS this season.
In his first season at CMU, McElwain has won MAC Coach of the Year honors after taking the Chippewas from a 1-11 record in 2018 to a 8-4 mark and a MAC championship game berth against Miami (Ohio) on Dec. 7.