'A group of guys that are hungry': Defensive line key to Chippewas homecoming win


Birmingham, MI. senior Troy Hairston II sacks the quarter back for Toledo on Sat. Oct. 16 during the homecoming game at Kelly/Shorts Stadium. CMU beat the Toledo Rockets 26-23.

Central Michigan's defensive line, balanced between old and new, came through when it was needed most.

On a third-and-12 from the Chippewas' 27-yard line during overtime, Toledo redshirt freshman quarterback Dequan Finn took a shotgun snap and began a three-step drop. 

As he reached the hitch of his drop, Finn sidestepped to his left and looked to throw. Before he could set his feet, three Chippewa defenders had gotten off their block. The Detroit native and former CMU commit tried to step up in a collapsed pocket.

Junior defensive end Thomas Incoom, a Valdosta State transfer, lunged and secured Finn's feet, while fourth-year sophomore defensive tackle Tico Brown wrapped the quarterback's upper body. Together, the two notched the Chippewa defense's seventh sack of the night. 

One play later, CMU (4-3, 2-1 Mid-American Conference) won the game, 26-23, when Toledo (3-4, 1-2) kicker Thomas Cluckey's sixth field goal attempt of the day sailed wide right. 

On an afternoon where, for three quarters, the Chippewas looked to have put together as complete a performance as can be, the defensive line came through when things looked to be teetering on the edge. 

Though the Chippewas are without two mainstays on their defensive line, the team has developed a solid rotation on its front line. Troy Hairston, Amir Siddiq and Incoom set the edge, while Brown and redshirt freshman Jacques Bristol headline a plethora of talented defensive tackles. 

"You've got a group of guys in there that are hungry," said coach Jim McElwain. "And they play that way."

The defensive end room will get stronger with the return of LaQuan Johnson, who has been in and out of the lineup with an injury. The guys on the inside, meanwhile, are without senior leader Robi Stuart. Losing this type of production make or break a season for any team. 

Instead, CMU reloaded through the transfer portal. 

Incoom transferred in from Valdosta State. John Wesley Whiteside transferred from Austin Peay. Tyrece Woods Jr., a high school teammate of CMU running back Lew Nichols III, transferred from Buffalo, respectively. This depth has been both necessary and welcomed. 

"It allows us to feel like there's no drop off with the depth," Hairston said after the win. "Say me and Incoom start it off and Amir comes in, I don't feel nervous at all. I know he knows his plays, he's a great player. We all practice the same way, we all share the same pass rushes. We all talk to each other and share the same mindset."

In total, Saturday, Incoom, Bristol and Hairston each led the way with 1.5 sacks apiece. Whiteside had one, while three others had .5. Against a quarterback like Finn, who had a fair amount of success using his legs, strong interior play was pivotal. 

"(Finn) is a very mobile, very good quarterback," Hairston said. "We knew they weren't even gonna try to put in (quarterback Carter Bradley) because of the way we rush. We just took that into consideration and worked on it all practice. We really just worked on trying to, from start to finish, play our own game. Because we haven't done that all year." 

Seven sacks could've easily turned to double digits, but Finn channeled escape artist Harry Houdini on several occasions. Toledo came into the game using a two-quarterback system, a concept CMU is familiar with after seeing similar situations in each of its last two opponents.

"I'm not so sure, the last two weeks, we got great (defensive) end play like we did today," McElwain said. "And then, the guys inside, being able to keep those guys fresh and those guys made some big plays."

Finn ran for two scores, including the game-tying score with 35 seconds to go on a speed option. Yet, he was bottled up on the Rockets' three offensive plays in overtime. First down brought an incompletion, second down saw a three-yard toss from Finn to Bryce Mitchell.

On third down, the defensive line grounded through the Rockets' offense.