Preview: Chippewas travel to Miami (Ohio) for MAC opener
The so-called tune-up games are out the window. Moving forward, every game will count toward Central Michigan football's chase of a Mid-American Conference championship.
Third-year coach Jim McElwain and his team will travel to Oxford, Ohio to take on Miami (Ohio) in each team's conference opener. The Chippewas (2-2) are coming off a thrilling win over Florida International, while the RedHawks (1-3) are reeling after being beaten by undefeated Army. The two teams will square off at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Yager Stadium.
The conference opener will serve as the first start of 2021 for Chippewa redshirt freshman Daniel Richardson, who led three touchdown drives late against FIU to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. On the season, Richardson is 28-for-46 for 437 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions. His performance against the Panthers earned him one of eight Manning Award Star of the Week nods.
The last time these two teams was in the 2019 MAC Championship game. Miami (Ohio) and coach Chuck Martin took that game, 26-21, spoiling the end of what was a remarkable turnaround in McElwain's first year as coach of the Chippewas.
Despite the heartbreak of that game, and the plethora of players who still suit up for CMU after playing in that game, McElwain stressed he does not view this game as an opportunity for revenge.
"I would hope, for some of those older guys who played in that game, that they would understand the importance of it," McElwain said. "And yet, this team is so new that our biggest focus is going out and playing a complete game."
Meet the opponent
The RedHawks are led by sophomore quarterbacks Brett Gabbert and AJ Mayer. Gabbert, who was the starter in 2019, missed the season opener against Cincinnati with an injury but has played in the last three, starting two. Mayer started last week against Army.
"I've really been impressed with (Gabbert) and how he handles things," McElwain said.
Miami has leaned on two freshmen running backs, Kevin Davis and David Afari, but could get experienced options Tyre Shelton and Jaylon Bester back against the Chippewas. Experience carries to the wide receiver position, where senior Jack Sorenson leads the team with 15 catches and 263 yards.
Sorenson is a familiar name to those who watched the 2019 MAC title game, as he was named offensive player of the game after making eight catches for 123 yards and a score.
On defense, the RedHawks are led by sophomore linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. and safety Mike Brown. Defensive end Kameron Butler has also been a playmaker, another familiar name from that 2019 matchup.
"These guys play really, really hard," McElwain said. "I think that's a testament to their coach and the coaching staff. They give you a lot of things offensively that really challenge you. Our front has a huge challenge this weeks and we can't let a couple of those guys on defense dictate negative plays."
Big question: How will the Chippewas young corners hold up?
In the win over FIU, the Chippewa front seven dominated. Yet, the defense was exposed on the back end with a series of long passes. According to Pro Football Focus, starting cornerback Donte Kent allowed six completions for 203 yards to the Panthers.
The starter opposite Kent, junior Dishon McNary, is out indefinitely with an ankle injury. This thrusts freshman Daedae Hill into a starting role, with juniors Rollian Sturkey and Richard Bowens III along with freshman Elijah Rikard also available.
"We'll go in with a rotation like we do," McElwain said. "But know this, I've got confidence in those guys. They prove it during practice, and we've just gotta go make some of those plays while the ball is in the air during the games."
With these struggles displayed on game film, it's likely that whoever is taking snaps for the RedHawks will make a point to test Kent and Hill early. The ability to prevent big plays has always been a staple of defensive coordinator Robb Akey's units, and this will be pivotal for the Chippewas and their hopes of winning their first conference game.
Key to victory: Start fast
The Chippewas slogged out of the gate in each of their last two games, falling behind by double digits to both FIU and Louisiana State. McElwain is hopeful that his team will understand the urgency of a quick start heading into the conference opener.
"We need to do a great job of overcoming some of the things that happened there, and go in and play a lot better football than we did last week," McElwain said.
In each of CMU's first two games, it scored on its opening possession. However, the team has been plagued by slow starts. It was an exceptional comeback against FIU, but McElwain knows this is not something his team can get away with in the MAC.
"We play really well in spurts," McElwain said. "And yet, we've had lulls along the way. It's time for this football team to put a complete football game together and it's not gonna be easy against an opponent like this that gives you so many issues."
Central Michigan (2-2) at Miami (Ohio) (1-3)
All-time series: Miami 15-13-1
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
Date: Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021
Stadium: Fred C. Yager Stadium
Location: Oxford, Ohio
Odds: Miami (Ohio) -1
TV: ESPN+ (Michael Reghi, Je'Rod Cherry)
Radio: 98.5 WUPS (Adam Jaksa, Brock Gutierrez, Chris Jared)