Chippewas outlast Washington State, win 2021 Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl


JaCorey Sullivan, right, runs the ball down the field after a catch during the 2021 Sun Bowl on Dec. 31 in El Paso, Texas.

Fourth-and-5 for Washington State from its own 19-yard line.

The Cougars had scored 21 of the previous 24 points and were looking to complete the comeback on Central Michigan. Quarterback Victor Gabalis slung an out route to Joey Hobert. Junior linebacker Troy Brown stymied Hobert short of the line of gain. 

After a measurement, Hobert was inches away from a first down. 

CMU ball with 2:04 remaining.

“I saw it all the way” Brown said. “It was a matter of me taking my shot, taking my chance. 

“It was me being instinctful and playing a game I feel I can play.”

With all of the Cougars timeouts depleted, the Chippewas melted the remaining clock. It didn’t matter who the opponent was or where the game was played, Central Michigan was determined to snap its five-game bowl losing streak.

With less than 96 hours to prepare for their new opponent, the Chippewas earned a 24-21 victory over the Cougars on Friday, winning the 2021 Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl. Friday’s win is the programs first bowl win since they defeated Western Kentucky 24-21 in the 2012 Little Ceasars Pizza Bowl.

“That’s a PAC-12 team (we just beat),” said head coach Jim McElwain. “We have a bunch of guys that work hard and play their tails off, and it showed today.”

The Chippewas were without starting tackles Bernhard Raiman and Luke Goedeke. 

A 21-0 Chippewa halftime lead forced the Cougars to pull quarterback Jayden de Laura after finishing nine-of-19 for 45 yards through the air and accumulated -36 yards rushing on three carries. Gabalis stepped in and provided the spark that WSU desperately needed. 

He found Victor Lincoln for a 55-yard gain to put the Cougars in the red zone for the second time up to that point. The Chippewas earned a crucial fourth and goal stop, but Troy Hairston II was flagged for a roughing the passer, giving the Cougars an automatic first down. A direct snap to Travell Harris cut the Chippewa lead to 14 points. 

The Chippewas first play of the ensuing drive rolled quarterback Daniel Richardson to the offensive left. He attempted to dump the ball to   Sixth year tight end Hunter Buczkowski, but was blanketed by WSU’s Travion Brown for an interception that put the Cougars instantly in the red zone.

Facing fourth and goal, Gabalis found De’Zhaun Stribling on a slant route to pull within one possession with 2:24 left in the third quarter. 

The Chippewas opened the fourth quarter with an opportunity to take a 10-point lead off a 25 yard field goal. Freshman Marshall Meeder’s attempt was blocked by Ron Stone Jr. to keep the game at 7 points.

Facing fourth-and-1 from its own 32 yard line, the Cougars tried running the ball into the teeth of the Chippewa defense to keep the drive alive. Brown stuffed Nakia Watson at the line of scrimmage, forcing a turnover on downs that resulted in a 43 yard field goal from Meeder with 9:11 to go. 

A 56 yard completion from Gabalis to Ollie Donavan put WSU in the red zone once again. The Chippewas stopped the Cougars on third and medium, but a CMU pass interference call resulted in a fresh set of downs. Gabalis found Lincoln to pull within a field goal with 3:13 remaining.

The Cougars were ultimately unsuccessful in their comeback attempt, converting one of their 16 third downs and one of their five tries on fourth down. The Chippewas, who outshined WSU 147-13 on the ground, feasted on WSU miscues in the first half. 

After taking a 6-0 lead off a Meeder 52 yard field goal, a program bowl game record, Freshman Fernando Sanchez Jr. forced a Cougars fumble on the ensuing kickoff. Sixth-year senior Kumehnnu Gwilly recovered the fumble to give the Chippewas prime field position at the WSU 29 yard line. 

Richardson connected with Buczkowski for a first down. The Chippewas then called the number of redshirt freshman Lew Nichols III on the next two plays. The nation’s leading rusher scored on his second carry of the drive, a one-yard toss play toward the CMU bench for a 13-0 lead. 

The Cougars, who netted -12 yards in the first quarter, finally found momentum in the second quarter, mustering a seven play, 52 yard drive that put the Cougars in field goal range. The snap was bobbled by the Cougars holder and was dropped for a loss on fourth down, giving CMU the ball. 

After see-saw-like action by both offenses, junior Kalil Pimpleton sliced and diced his way past Cougars defenders on a punt return like only he can. The Mid-American Conference Special Teams Player of the Year beat 10 defenders, but was brought down by the Cougars punter at the WSU nine yard line.

Richardson connected with sophomore tight end Joel Wilson on third down for the Chippewa touchdown. Richardson connected with a wide-open Pimpleton on the two-point conversion for a 21-0 lead. 

Nichols finished with 139 yards and a touchdown, earning Sun Bowl MVP honors. Brown finished with a game-best 11 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and added one sack. 

Richardson finished 17-of-33 for 208 yards with a touchdown and interception. Hairston II and Thomas Incoom combined for three sacks and four tackles for loss.  

“Any win is huge, I wanted a power five win for a long time, ever since I’ve been at CMU,” Hairston said. “I finally get it in a bowl game win. I got a two-for-one to end it all.”