Preview: CMU football prepared for ‘physical, much improved’ Bowling Green State
Heading into Week two of the season, Central Michigan football was favored to walk away from Kelly/Shorts Stadium with its first home win of the young season against South Alabama.
Of course, that was not the actual outcome.
Head coach Jim McElwain warned that this game would not be as easily won as it appeared. When talking about the Jaguars’ defense weeks ago, McElwain cautioned that “it’s going to give us a lot of problems,” and also acknowledged that he and the team had “our work cut out for us.”
McElwain didn’t want his players to overlook the opponent, and clearly for good reason.
This week, McElwain spoke with a similar disposition, and appeared to convey the message that the Chippewas need to be prepared for Bowling Green State on Saturday.
“We haven’t played them since my very first year,” McElwain said. “We played them down there (in 2019). Obviously, you get some film but you're not focusing on that team like you are when you play them (now). And you know, going back just how much they have improved, and more importantly, the way Scott (Loeffler, head coach) and his staff have improved the roster.”
Meet the opponent
The Falcons have had a number of interesting outcomes throughout the season thus far. They lost to UCLA in their first game of the season by a margin of 28 points, but McElwain doesn’t think that game was quite as lopsided as it appears from the score.
“They’ve got guys playing and playing hard,” said McElwain. “Go all the way back to their game against UCLA. I mean, they did not look out of place at all. And put a heck of a scare in those guys and ran with them and played, you know, probably more physical.”
Physicality is something that McElwain feels hasn’t quite translated to on-field results for Bowling Green throughout most of the season. The Falcons' offense ranks ninth in the Mid-American Conference, scoring 25.3 points per game (CMU’s offense ranks two spots ahead of BGSU at seventh).
The defensive unit is ranked even lower, coming in at 11th in the MAC in points allowed per game with 37. It has also allowed nearly 170 rushing yards per game and 13 total rushing touchdowns, in addition to nearly 280 passing yards per game and 18 total receiving touchdowns.
Despite these numbers, the Falcons have a record of 3-4 (2-1 in the MAC), and currently sit tied for second in the MAC East with Ohio.
Last week, BGSU beat Miami (Ohio) in a 17-13 slugfest, in which the offensive unit rushed for 205 yards while scoring both of its touchdowns on the ground.
“Look at what they did to a really good Miami (Ohio) team,” McElwain said. “They beat them in a way that (shows) they’re playing physical, and much improved.”
One of the primary reasons for Bowling Green’s ability to hang around is senior quarterback Matt McDonald, who has thrown for 1367 yards (227.8 per game) and 14 touchdowns compared to just three interceptions.
McDonald, who took over as starting quarterback in 2020, does a good job spreading the ball around, as five players average 20 or more receiving yards per game. Senior wide receiver Odieu Hiliare leads the team with four receiving touchdowns.
Big question: Which running back will carry the load?
In CMU’s game last week, news of Lew Nichols' absence surfaced mere hours before kickoff. That meant that sophomores Myles Bailey and Marion Lukes would be trusted to pick up the slack.
Both backs got off to a fast start, but during the first quarter, Bailey sustained an undisclosed injury. McElwain didn’t give a very positive update on his status on Wednesday.
“Myles will be out, and that will be an extended period of time,” McElwain said.
Lukes had a career day in the absence of the two top options, rushing for 160 yards and two touchdowns to go along with 71 receiving yards and a touchdown reception.
However, McElwain indicated that Nichols will most likely be back in the mix this week, saying that he’s “probable”, but also mentioning that “we’ll see what happens when he gets there.”
Will Nichols be leaned on as the lead back like he has so many times throughout the past two years, or will Lukes get the nod as the lead back due to his performance against Akron? Even if Nichols isn’t one hundred percent healthy, McElwain isn’t too concerned about the impact injuries will have on the running back room.
“Obviously, Marion and Christian (Brown) did a fantastic job for us last week,” McElwain said. “They’ll be there, as well as Jake Tafelski who has been playing all year on special teams for us. It goes back to the depth we felt we had in that running back room. I think it's coming to fruition.”
Brown, a redshirt freshman, is ready for whatever the coaches determine for him.
“You know, I'm not sure what's going to happen with Myles and I'm not sure on Lew's status right now,” Brown said. “But, I'll be ready if my name is called upon. So, if that does happen, I'll be prepared for it and I'm ready to help this team out.”
Key to victory: Limit Matt McDonald’s production
The Chippewas have struggled to contain mobile quarterbacks throughout the season, but did so admirably against Akron quarterback DJ Irons last week. McDonald is less of a threat than Irons with his legs, but he still has some scrambling ability, evidenced by his 189 rushing yards gained this season (this excludes yardage lost via sacks taken).
Given CMU’s effort against Irons - who currently leads his team in rushing, it seems likely that its defensive unit will hold strong against McDonald’s rush attempts. The bigger question lies in the Chippewas’ ability to limit McDonald in the passing game.
CMU has gotten contributions from a handful of defensive backs who weren’t necessarily expected to get extended playing time going into the season. However, due to injuries and Rolliann Sturkey’s early-season departure, a few guys have been thrust into action and shown they belong.
While unexpected contributions are a positive sign of recruiting and player development, anytime inexperienced players see extended playing time, there is always the chance of that inexperience showing up on the field.
In order to find success against an experienced signal-caller like McDonald, the defensive backs will have to play a clean game. Cornerbacks Donte and Ronald Kent have proven to be quite reliable in coverage, while starting safeties Trey Jones and Jayden Davis have shown they have a nose for the ball and are usually in the right position.
If the less experienced guys, such as corners Lavario Wiley and Jarvarius Sims, can hold up in coverage during their snaps and limit chunk plays (which both have done quite well so far this season), the Chippewas’ defense should be able to limit McDonald for the most part.
Central Michigan (2-5) vs Bowling Green State (3-4)
All-time series: 23-19 Bowling Green
Time: 1:00 p.m. ET
Date: Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022
Stadium: Kelly/Shorts Stadium
Location: Mt. Pleasant, Michigan
Odds: CMU -6.5
Radio: 98.5 WUPS (Adam Jaksa, Brock Gutierrez)