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Central Michigan Presents Pivotal Challenge for Toledo

Cooper Rush and the Central Michigan Chippewas look to provide a big challenge for the Toledo Rockets as they travel to the Glass Bowl for a noon kickoff on Saturday. Our Tom Mauter brings the preview.

Tom Mauter, staff writer, Rocket Digest, tjmauter@comcast.net

October 19, 2016

Central Michigan (5-2, 2-1) comes into the Glass Bowl at noon Saturday needing a win to keep title hopes alive in the MAC West.  Head coach John Bonamego appears to have his Chippewas returned to their winning ways following back-to-back big loses with the opposition each racking up 49 points. A three-point win over Ball State and a six-point triple OT victory over NIU point to a mid-season correction. The Chips present a challenge for and a call to earlier proficiency by the Toledo defense to remain undefeated in the MAC. 

Chippewas on Offense

It’s all about QB Cooper Rush. The Maroon and Gold do prefer a balance of rushing and passing plays but, ultimately, they depend on the arm of Rush. Their key for success is giving him time to pass. When pressured, and moved out of the pocket with containment, the Chips’ offense falters. Conversely, given time Cooper can pick defenses apart making the CMU running game effective. To make things better, Cooper has added more scrambling to the running game, whether by design or out of necessity.

Cooper Rush has been an accomplished passer throughout his career, increasing his completion percentage every year of his first three years. This season, to date, his percentage (61.3%) has dropped off. What has improved is his ratio of touchdowns to interceptions. This season, Rush has thrown eighteen TD passes with seven picks.

He is currently ranked 23rd nationally in passing efficiency rating. By comparison, Logan Woodside is ranked second while WMU’s Zach Terrell is ranked fourth in the country. 

The other part of the equation for Rush’s success is a quality receiving corps. The lost of leading receiver Jesse Kroll to a season-ending knee injury has been mostly overcome with a cast of receivers improving each week. 

WR Corey Willis has stepped up big time and is the leading Chips receiver in catches (37) and yardage (570). But he has ample help. TE Tyler Conklin (3 TDs), WRs Mark Chapman (3TDs) and Brandon Childress have formed a solid unit, running excellent routes with soft hands. Corey Willis is also good on screens and yards after the grab with shifty moves forward. He leads the team with eight TD grabs. 

The CMU running game is based on quickness of Devon Spaulding and the power of Jahray Hayes.  Spaulding leads in rushing attempts (100) and total yards (547) for an average of 5.5 ypc. Hayes, second in carries (69), leads the ground game with five touchdowns. 

Spaulding has 19 receptions mostly on swing passes and screens as an extension of the running game.  Getting him into space is a plus for the Chips’ offensive success.

The CMU offensive line has a history of high level play, similar to that of the University of Toledo. This season, however, has been a bit of a mixed bag. The CMU offensive line has been very active and effective in the opening part of their games. Their pass protection does have a tendency to break down, particularly in the second half. This has opened the door to Cooper Rush being pressured. In the first seven games, Rush has been sacked 24 times. The Chips OL has also allowed 36 quarterback hurries. This group put together an improved effort against NIU chewing up more than 41 minutes of the game clock, with both running backs racking up more than 100 yards on 22 rushes each.  Then again, NIU is giving up nearly 225 yards per game on the ground, next to last in the MAC.

Chippeawas on Defense

The defense, both against the run and the pass, has outperformed the Chips’ offense. Setting aside the UVA and WMU games, the defense has kept the Chips not only in the games but preserved wins or put them into positions to win.

Stopping the run has about broken even with the Chips ability to run the ball. CMU is allowing 145.4 yards per game on the ground. Spalding and friends are rushing for 146.7 yards per game.  The Chips secondary is limiting opponent’s passing game to just 204.4 yards a game. Rush and company are close to 300 yards per game through the air -295.3 yards to be exact.

Up front, the top disrupter is DE Joe Ostman, All MAC performer last year, with the most tackles (31) of the front four, the most sacks (4.0) and QB hurries (2) on the team.

The linebackers are the tackling force of the CMU defense. Malik Fountain, Nathan Ricketts in the middle, and Alex Briones are the top three tacklers with 51, 43 and 35 in that order. They have combined for 13 of the team’s 39 TFL. They play well side-to-side in stopping the run.

The leader of a solid secondary is CB Amari Coleman. He leads the team with eight pass break-ups of the team’s total of 26; he is tied with CB Josh Cox with team’s best three interceptions. As a unit, they rank second in pass defense in the MAC, behind Buffalo. The Bulls, however, are last in rushing defense . . . in the nation.

Chippewas Special Teams

Kickoff coverage has been very good allowing opponents an average return of just 16.4 yards with a long of 47 yards. Mark Chapman, filling in for injured Jonathan Ward, is averaging nearly 20 yards per kickoff return. 

Punt coverage has also been solid limiting teams to just over eight yards a return with a long of 18 yards. Emmett Thomas has a long return of 26 yards and a 5.5-yard per punt return average. The Chips have allowed one touchdown on the return of a blocked punt. Jack Sheldon has taken over the punting duties from Cooper Mojsiejenko. Sheldon has averaged just under 38-yards per punt with eight of his 23 punts landing inside the twenty-yard line.

True freshman Kaden Keon has replaced Brian Eavery on kickoffs, starting with the NIU game. Two of his four kickoffs went for touchbacks. 

Eavery has been doing the field goals kicking but that may be changing too.  He missed a field goal in regulation, a 33-yarder with 16 seconds left against NIU. Things got worse as Eavery was wide left on a 35-yard attempt in the first OT, which would have also won the game. In CMU’s two games against UNLV and the Huskies, Eavery missed every FGA. For the season, he has made only three of nine attempts. Keon may add field goal kicking to his kickoff duties. Cooper Mojsiejenko, the previous punter, may be an option as well. 

CMU Players to Watch

·      #7 CB Amari Coleman in coverage matching up against Rocket wide outs

·      #8 WR Corey Willis is Rush’s favorite target and a threat with YAC

·      #25 RB Devon Spalding success on the ground will be a key to the success of the Chips offensive unit

WHAT TO LOOK FOR:

  • ·      CMU to rush two LBs to pressure Logan Woodside
  • ·      #11 RB Jahray’s lack of blocking skills 
  • ·      Rockets to attack the Chips’ perimeter through the air quick screens and hammer Hunt/Swanson/Jones-Moore up the middle
  • ·      In third and short, the Rockets to hurry up and run preventing CMU from changing personnel and getting set; with repeated success, Toledo will option to a quick screen on play action
  • ·      Rush to work the sidelines on pass plays with few crossing routes
  • ·      Cooper Rush to counter the Rockets defensive rush with screens – Rockets defenders need to extend arms with hands up
  • ·      Pressure, pressure, pressure on Rush starting with a DB off the Rockets’ left edge 
  • ·      Successful pass rush coming over CMU guard #70 Carr
  • ·      Double move by Rocket wide out against #7 Amari Coleman
  • ·      Chips to favor their offensive right side in running the ball
  • ·      CMU DE Ostman (#45) to be a force in pass rushing 
  • ·      CMU to employ jumbo package in short distance red zone situation, with #35 Trevor Thomas slipping out in the flat 
  • ·      #3 WR Mark Chapman to run jet sweep as well as being a deep threat
  • ·      Success of Rockets running attack based upon how well #42 LB Ricketts and #45 DE Ostman are blocked by the Rockets before they are able to make contact with UT’s running backs
  • ·      Turnovers - Rockets to recover a CMU fumble and make at least one pick of a Rush throw
  • ·      On-side kick from the Chips - they are a skilled unit which is not surprising given HC John Bonamego’s extensive NFL special teams coaching experience

Game Notes:

Kickoff - noon (ET)

Weather forecast - mostly sunny, high in mid 50s, 61% humidity, 10% chance of precipitation, and winds out of the WNW at 15 mph

Broadcast - TV: BCSN/TWC/ESPN3

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