Preview: CMU looks to get back on track against Bucknell

Sophomore running back Lew Nichols III, middle, defends the ball during the first home game on Sept. 10 at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.

Central Michigan football has had a rough beginning to its season, including a 38-24 loss to South Alabama in its first game back at Kelly/Shorts Stadium. 

But with the Mid-American Conference slate approaching, the Chippewas look to rebound when they welcome Bucknell (0-2) to town on Saturday at 1 p.m.

Although the loss to South Alabama hurt, head coach Jim McElwain doesn’t want his team getting down on themselves.

“Still licking our wounds a little bit from our performance last week,” said McElwain. “I take total responsibility for that. Yet there are a lot of lessons that we can learn from what transpired, like the way (we’ve) practiced. I do like the resolve of this team and like I said afterward, I really like this team.”

Meet the opponent

Bucknell’s two losses have somewhat replicated the script of CMU’s games thus far, as both teams have played much better in the second half. The Bison have had an overtime loss and another loss where they were defeated despite a fierce comeback sparked by replacing then-starting quarterback Ethan Grady for Nick Semptimphelter. 

It’s not clear who Bucknell will be going with at quarterback, as the recently-replaced Grady is listed as a projected starter. Regardless of who gets the nod, one aspect of the Bison’s game plan will likely remain intact: an RPO-focused attack. 

“One thing they do a really good job of is the RPO game, number one,” McElwain said. “They’ve got a plan, they understand who they’re keying, both quarterbacks. And they’ve made plays off of that.

“Number two, their running backs are really good players… They brought (Coleman Bennet) in the backfield and every time he goes in and they get into empty, he’s the main focal point.”

Additionally, while Bucknell has yet to assert itself as a defensive powerhouse, head coach Dave Cecchini has a knack for sending unusual blitz designs.

“What he does defensively, (Cecchini) will give you some problems,” McElwain said. “Some unique pressures. Looking back from a defensive coordinator standpoint, this guy came from Eastern Illinois. It’s really good stuff. In fact, I’ve actually kept (some of it) for myself, put it in a log, some of the pressures. So they give you things you really got to work on and be on top of your game.”

Big question: Can CMU effectively replace injured starters?

Not only did CMU suffer a disappointing loss last week, but will be without three key starters heading into Saturday’s game. 

Among the injured Chippewas is senior wide receiver Dallas Dixon, who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the first half against South Alabama. 

Maryland transfer wide receiver Carlos Carriere and sophomore cornerback Donte Kent are also out for Saturday’s contest after having their wisdom teeth removed earlier in the week. 

CMU will look to junior wide receiver Sam Hicks to fill Dixon’s role in the offense as the primary slot receiver. As for Carriere's replacement, McElwain offered up a few possibilities.

"Hicks played quite a bit in that last game," McElwain said. "We've got some other guys that need to come in and step up. Chris (Parker) has got to step up a little bit as we move forward, and I think it's time for him. Irone Jackson at the H, who played a little bit last week as well, needs to be able to kind of jump in there. 

"Finn Hogan, who hasn't played a lot of football because of the injury, but he needs to go in and be productive. And this is the opportunity for that. And so as you kind of look at those guys and to me, what a great opportunity, right? Let's go in and see what the heck we can do."

Key to victory: Establishing run attack early

While CMU’s offense has looked explosive at times, one element that has largely been absent is its rushing attack. 

Sophomore running back Lew Nichols III has struggled to replicate the success he enjoyed last season, and while backups Myles Bailey and Marion Lukes have looked good, they’ve seen limited touches through two games. 

After looking at the South Alabama game film, McElwain believes the Chippewas’ offensive success will be determined in the trenches.

"It starts with playing with pad level up front," McElwain said. "When you look at that film, we were playing on our side of the line of scrimmage and not their side of the line of scrimmage, and we need to get better at that.

Central Michigan (0-2) vs Bucknell (0-2)

All-time series: First ever meeting

Time: 1:00 p.m. ET

Date: Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022

Stadium: Kelly/Shorts Stadium

Location: Mt. Pleasant, Michigan

Odds: CMU -40

Over/Under: 57


Radio: 98.5 WUPS (Adam Jaksa, Brock Guiterrez)