Preview: 'Still with a lot to play for': CMU football welcomes Ball State for homecoming

For Central Michigan students and faculty, Oct. 8 -homecoming weekend- marks a period of celebration for those who have attended the school.

For the football team and head coach Jim McElwain, the matchup against Ball State holds a similar sense of importance, although for different reasons.

“Obviously, there’s a huge importance on this game”, said McElwain. 

After dropping two straight games, including its first Mid-American Conference game against Toledo last Saturday, CMU’s record sits at 1-4, the type of start that McElwain has mostly avoided in his head-coaching career.

In his two previous stops as a head coach (Colorado State and Florida), McElwain's only had two losing seasons. That said, he knows what it will take to get back on track.

“Still with a lot to play for in front of us,” McElwain said. “The thing you can't do is go out tight, and be afraid to make mistakes. Because sometimes in doing that, that puts you behind and I think that's also a little bit what's happened to us as we've opened up games.”

Last year, the Chippewas got the best of the Cardinals in Muncie, beating them 37-17 behind a 200-yard rushing performance by Lew Nichols. This year, both teams feature new-look offenses, and the contest should serve as a measure of where each team stacks up in-conference.

Meet the opponent

Drew Plitt was the unquestioned leader of this Ball State program a year ago. The former Ball State and current NFL free agent threw for over 2500 yards and 18 touchdowns as the Cardinals finished their season 6-7. He finished his career with the third-most passing yards in Ball State history.

With Plitt pursuing professional opportunities, Ball State head coach Mike Neu called on redshirt junior quarterback John Paddock to fill the void left from Plitt’s departure. Paddock has answered the call to the tune of 1538 yards and 11 touchdowns, while throwing six interceptions.

Fortunately for the Chippewas, Paddock doesn’t pose much of a threat as a runner. CMU’s defensive unit allowed 84 rushing yards to Toledo’s quarterback Dequan Finn last week. In week one, it allowed 57 yards and two touchdowns on the ground to Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders.

Much of the damage Paddock has dealt to opposing defenses has been through finding Jayshon Jackson, Paddock’s leading receiver. Jackson, a senior wide receiver who spent time at Cincinnati before transferring into the MAC, has amassed 447 receiving yards through five weeks in addition to two scores. 

Leading the way in the receiving touchdown category is freshman tight end Tanner Koizol, with five. Sophomore running back Carson Steele leads all rushers with five of his own coming on the ground.

The Steele-led rushing attack has produced almost 140 yards per game, but on the flip side, Ball State’s defense has sacrificed over 200 rushing yards per game and nearly three touchdowns on average.

The Cardinals, like CMU, have been much better offensively during the second half this season, outscoring their opponents 85-79 in the last 30 minutes of games. However, they’ve been outscored by opponents 89-47 during the first half. 

This held true in Ball State’s matchup last week against Northern Illinois, where it came back and beat the Huskies in overtime after trailing 24-7 at the half. 

Big question: Can CMU open up the run game with explosive plays?

It’s been a rough going so far for sophomore running back Lew Nichols, who is still adjusting to running behind two new offensive tackles this year. Opponents have been able to load up the box on defense and keep Nichols from running all over them like he was able to last year.

“​​We've got to create some explosive plays in the passing game to loosen that box up,” McElwain said. “We haven't found that threat yet. We've found some consistency. And yet, those explosive ones that say, ‘whoa, we better back out here a little bit.’ You know, it's something we need to find now. We've taken some shots, haven't connected, so it's gonna be important for us to find that and create some of those and it might be using (Nichols) as a decoy a little bit more.”

With the receiving corps completely overhauled from last year, McElwain and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino have yet to identify who will spark these ‘explosive plays’ that McElwain mentioned. Last year, it was Kalil Pimpleton and Jacorey Sullivan who regularly punished defenses that loaded the box. 

In CMU’s week one matchup with Oklahoma State, former Ball State and current CMU receiver Jalen McGaughy served as CMU’s field stretcher and made explosive plays, but has been rather silent in recent weeks. Last week, senior receiver Noah Koenigschneckt managed to create an explosive play on a 47-yard touchdown.

However, just as McElwain noted, finding consistency in creating these opportunities is what’s going to allow Nichols to really get going. 

Key to victory: Leadership up and down the roster

What CMU lost in leadership after last season nearly rivals what it lost in talent. 

Kalil Pimpleton was well-known as a vocal leader in the locker room. He led by example with his exceptional play, but always wore a smile and encouraged teammates.

On the defensive side of the ball CMU lost nearly all of its multi-year starters in players such as safeties Alonzo McCoy, Devonni Reed and Gage Kreski. It also lost most of its linebacking unit and suffered losses along the defensive line. 

With so many new faces on the depth chart, other players must continue to showcase leadership abilities to bring out the best in each other, specifically when playing from behind. 

“It's interesting about the leadership actually, you know, we're not a real old team,” McElwain said. “(Starting center) Jamezz Kimbrough is a guy that commands a lot of respect. And you know, has been in the program and does a great job with that. You know, defensively, we're counting on some guys that are in their first/second year really playing, and those guys are still learning. And yet never back down from (anything) which is good. And then part of that comes to me directly, making sure I'm giving them the proper leadership from the top moving forward.”

Central Michigan (1-4) vs Ball State (2-3)

All-time series: Central Michigan leads 27-26-1

Time: 3:30 p.m. ET

Date: Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022

Stadium: Kelly/Shorts Stadium

Location: Mt. Pleasant, MI

Odds: Central Michigan -7.5

Over/Under: 63.5

TV: ESPN+ (Jim Barber and Adam Breneman)

Radio: 98.5 WUPS (Adam Jaksa, Brock Guiterrez)