With the football season starting to feel reasonably close, it's time to check in with MSU's upcoming opponents. Over the next few weeks, we'll have a short Q&A with a blogger from each opposing school. Next up: Central Michigan. Ron Balaskovitz from the top MAC blog Hustle Belt was nice enough to answer some questions about Dan Enos' tenure and how Mt. Pleasant is preparing for perhaps its biggest game ever.
1. MSU plays at CMU this season as part of the Celebrate the State series. How's the hype building up in Mt. Pleasant? I imagine this is the biggest game there in a long, long time.
The CMU football program, and the town in general are seeing this as the biggest home game in program history. I've had friends of mine who go to MSU, or are just Spartan fans asking me to hook them up with tickets, and every time I've told them: "It's nearly impossible for non-season ticket holders and non-CMU students to get tickets to this game." But that tends to happen when you have a game of this magnitude, and your stadium only holds about 31,000 people. I have even been told that the local Super 8 is charging roughly $300 a night for the weekend of the game. And for the first time in my 5 years up here, the university is making CMU students get actual tickets for the game, still free (like every sport for students), but they are limited; for every other game we can just walk in with our student ID. There is so much hype surrounding this game, that even last season it was probably the most talked about thing in Chippewa football.
2. How is Dan Enos looking? It was tough for MSU to lose its top recruiter, but it made sense for him to make the jump to become a head coach. He's had some tough seasons, but do things appear to be on the upswing?
That's the million dollar question and topic up here in Mt. Pleasant. In my opinion, I think he is a good coach, who says all the right things, has gotten rave reviews in his recruiting of the state, and the players here really seem to like everything about him, but he was the wrong type of hire for CMU. In the glory years of Dan LeFevour and Antonio Brown we ran a sort of gimmick offense that relied on creating space, getting the ball in the hands of our receivers and letting them make plays. But under Enos, he instantly came in and tried to install a pro-style offense, similar to what you guys run, and to be honest, we just don't have the type of athletes to run that type of system. Enos has really tried to emphasize running the ball, and stopping the run. But the defense last season was abysmal, giving up an average of 187 yards/game on the ground. As a result, we play from behind much of the time, and are forced to throw the ball. So when you can't stop the run, you really don't get the chance to run the ball, which kind of puts a big stop to Enos' plan.
Another thing that the team needs to learn, and I think this directly falls on the shoulders of Enos, is that this team needs to learn how to win, and close out close games. In Enos' first year, we lost 9 games, but 7 of those were to bowl eligible teams, and 6 of those by a touchdown or less. Last season we lost 3 conference games by a touchdown or less, and were tied or leading Kentucky and North Carolina State into the 2nd half of those games.
Enos has brought in enough talent to put together a competitive team, as evident by our 48-41 win over MAC Champion Northern Illinois, it's just a matter of getting a more consistent effort week to week.
3. Dan LeFevour and Antonio Brown are long gone. Who are some players to watch this season?
On offense, the Chippewas are loaded at the WR position. We had a boatload of injuries everywhere last season, and that forced many players who weren't ready to play meaningful snaps, but one area that stepped up and where we got to see the future on display was WR. The two guys to watch here are Cody Wilson, who was injured for the majority of the second half the season, but still managed to catch 48 passes. Think of him as a poor man's Wes Welker; short, white, not that fast, but somehow he gets open, and every game he catches 5-8 passes that always seem to get a first down, and occasionally the end zone. Another WR to watch is Titus Davis. Due to injuries, he was forced to step in and play lots of meaningful snaps, but impressed, and showed breakaway speed. His true freshman season ended with only 40 catches, but he averaged 18.8 YPC, and 8 of his catches were for touchdowns. He is one of the few burners on this team, but he is a legitimate home run threat, and with a year of experience, should be even better this season.
On defense, there isn't much to talk about, but one player, and someone who I think will get a look in the NFL after this season is Safety Jahleel Addae, who was First Team All-MAC last season, and our defensive MVP. He lead the team with 107 tackles, and tied for the MAC lead with 4 interceptions. He plays downhill, and is a heat-seeking missile, always looking not just to make a tackle, but destroy the ball carrier.
Unfortunately that sometimes get him into trouble, as he had his fair share of late hits, and personal fouls last season, he had at least one that I remember against MSU last season.
4. The MAC has become known for its wild Thursday night games (#MACtion). Do you like the idea of the national stage on an inconvenient night?
I like the idea when it's either not CMU, or when it's CMU playing a road game. It's exciting football, provided you like offense, and who doesn't love offense? The problem is that these games, be it on a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, are absolute hell on the program, not from an exposure level, but community level. CMU had major attendance problems last year, to the point where the NCAA took notice, and part of that was due to the weeknight home games we had. The last two home games, both weeknights, had about 25,000 people COMBINED, and to be honest, that number was largely inflated. It makes it tough for both students, due to either class, studying, or other reasons, and community, due to work or school the next day, to come out and support the team, especially one that has 6 wins over the past 2 seasons. Thankfully we only have 2 weeknight home games, out of 7 total, this season; our season opener which always draws well, and a Friday night nationally televised game on ESPN2 against Navy, who draws nice crowds wherever they play. So while the exposure is nice, it's just much more convenient for everyone when games are played on a Saturday.
5. CMU has scored its share of upsets over MSU, but most games haven't been all that close, like last season. Do you give CMU any chance of an upset?
CMU returns 18 of 22 starters on offense and defense, and both kickers return as well. So this is the most experienced CMU team that we will have had in a long time. If ever they had a chance to pull off the home upset, this is it. That being said, I don't think their chances are all that great. Maybe 10-15% chance of it actually happening. The biggest thing will be stopping the run, which will be a huge task given the struggles last year, and MSU's reputation as a run-led team. If CMU wants to win, or keep this game close, I think they need to keep MSU under 150 rushing yards, and 30 points. There are enough playmakers on the CMU offense to where if that happens, the chances of an upset greatly increase. That said, I think MSU will win, but not in an embarrassing rout like last season. For the sake of a prediction, I'll say MSU 35 CMU 21.
Thanks again to Ron for taking time to answer some questions. We'll be sure to check back in with him during game week for some tips on gameday on Mt. Pleasant. For all your info about MACtion, make sure you check out Hustle Belt.