The Story So Far
The Popeyes Bahamas Bowl. No, it's not something you can order and smother with hot sauce but it was a feast for the eyes of any college football fan. In case you missed it, CMU was down 35 to start the fourth quarter but scored five consecutive touchdowns, including a miracle last second multi-lateral Hail Mary only to fail on the final two-point conversion and lose 49-48 to Western Kentucky. It was one of the more incredible quarters of football you'll ever see, and had they been able to convert the final two-pointer, probably the best comeback in college football history. Alas, there are no medals for "almost" winning in awesome fashion (there should be) and Central finished the season 7-6.
The offseason was filled with even more surprises, as now-former Head Coach (and MSU running backs coach) Dan Enos left Mount Pleasant to call plays for Bret Bielema in Fayetteville. How's that going, coach?
To his credit, Dan got an annual raise of nearly $200k. More money for less responsibility? That's change we can all believe in.
He was replaced with former Detroit Lions Special Teams Coordinator John Bonamego. A Chippewa Wideout and Quarterback in the 1980's, the 51-year-old Bonamego is the first alumnus since 1966 to coach CMU; a responsibility he doesn't take lightly, proven by the fact was on the sidelines for week one only days after finishing cancer radiation treatment. In all seriousness, hats off to you Coach Bono. Way to kick cancer's ass. His new offensive coordinator, Morris Watts, has deep ties with Michigan State, having served three different stints as MSU's OC (1986-90, 92-94, 99-02) and coaching some of the all-time MSU greats, such as Lorenzo White, Charles Rogers and TJ Duckett. I'd make an '88 Rose Bowl reference but we won of those two years ago so WHATEVER. JK Morris, thanks for everything!
Also, Tom Crean went to Central which really is just an excuse to show you this:
When CMU has the ball
Luckily for the Chips, quarterback Cooper Rush is still around. Rush rolled into 2015 on the back of that ridiculous Bahamas Bowl performance that saw him throw for seven TD's - including an insane five in the fourth quarter alone — and nearly 500 yards. Fans in Mount Pleasant are having the happy realization that Rush's incredible bowl game is closer to the norm than an outlier, as he has thrown for nearly 1,000 yards in his first three weeks despite losing last year's top wideout, Titus Davis.
The offense is tailored nicely to Rush's skill set and spreads the ball around a lot (five players have double-digit receptions this season), making it difficult to take away any specific playmaker. The Lansing Catholic alum has been sacked eight times already this year, so getting rid of the ball quickly will be key for him behind a leaky offensive line. If given time, Rush can put up some big numbers and will provide a test for an MSU secondary that has a few questions marks of its own.
The outlook here is....not dope. Last year, CMU ran the ball more than twice as many times as they threw, but Watts has re-vamped the system to better fit the personnel on hand, turning the Chips into a pass-first squad. Sophomore running back Devon Spalding leads the team with 107 rushing yards on 36 carries and...yeah...that 2.97 yards per carry stat pretty much says it all. Three starting offensive lineman are back, including First Team All-MAC center Nick Beamish, but MSU should be able to contain the running game without having to get too creative.
When MSU Has the Ball
A year ago, the Chips actually finished first in total defense in the MAC (355.5 yard per game) but had one of the least effective pass rushes in the nation, with exactly zero players registering more than four sacks. This led to a predictably leaky secondary and huge chunks of yardage through the air for their opponents. New coordinator Greg Colby will try and change that by ditching the 4-2-5 defense and moving to a more traditional 4-3 front. The transition will test the depth Enos left behind in Mount Pleasant, as two of the teams top three 'backers and four of the teams top eight defensive backs have graduated. Experienced safeties Tony Annese and Kavon Frazier are back, as is linebacker Tim Hamilton, but there are plenty of holes to fill in both position groups.
The pass defense for CMU was not great last year. Yes, they bring back players with experience but they are by no means studs. Add in the fact inexperienced linebackers will be asked to drop into coverage more often in a 4-3 and questions begin to outnumber the answers. MSU, on the other hand, comes in with Connor Cook at the helm of what is shaping up to be a lethal passing attack, spearheaded by budding star Aaron Burbridge. If the line can hold firm, Cook might be able to watch some of this game from the sidelines — something he wasn't able to do against Air Force.
When given space, Madre London and L.J. Scott have impressed. Each has ripped off some big yardage plays and found pay dirt multiple times. However, last week was a rough one for both the backs and offensive line, in the face of constant pressure from Air Force. This week should provide a more realistic look at what Benny McGowan and Miguel Machado can do, as the Falcons all-out attack made it tough to judge just how effective they were. Their progress is crucial for a group that doesn't know exactly when Kodi Kieler will return.
They'll face a test as CMU returns an experienced defensive line, with eight of their top nine lineman from a year ago, including defensive end Blake Serpa, in the fold. I could have easily called out fellow linemen Joe Ostman or Jabari Dean here, but I went with Serpa because his name makes me think of a snake and snakes are cool #analysis. The rising-senior stuffed the stat sheet last year, leading the team in TFL's (12.5) and sacks (tied - four). He's no J.J. Watt — who is? — but Serpa knocked down four passes at the line of scrimmage and forced a fumble. He didn't catch any TD's (LAME) so the unfair-non-comparison-comparison ends there. Also, he'd definitely be in Slytherin. I AM THE TOC SORTING HAT. DEFY ME.
Schematically, the 4-3 provides CMU another player in the box which should allow for some more creative blitzes and pressure on opposing quarterbacks. This in theory, should help a shaky secondary by cutting down the amount of time they have to cover. So far this season, the shift has done just that and after watching Air Force cause MSU's vaunted offensive line some issues, it would be surprising to see anything change in strategy this weekend. It's a risky play — single coverage on the outside against talented wideouts and a QB like Cook always is — but it's probably the Chips best bet.
Kick and punt coverage have been bugaboos for MSU so far this season, but they did manage to give up only 48 total return yards last week. Progress! CMU doesn't feature any notable return men, so I'm sure they'll run the opening kickoff back and I'll owe someone a beer. R.J. Shelton and Macgarrett Kings haven't done a whole lot on their returns but maybe this is the week they pop one.
As for the kickers, Central's Brian Eavey is 5-of-6 this season with a long of 34 and his only miss coming from 50+. Not bad. Not great. For MSU, it's all about Michael Geiger. Where hath thou gone, Legatron? The Junior missed another chip shot last week and might not be fully recovered from offseason hip surgery. Hopefully he's just shaking off the rust, but after a down 2014, the concerns are justified. In better news, Jake Hartbarger is BOMBING punts down the field and looks like a real find.
Bottom Line and Prediction
The worst thing that could have happened to the Chippewa's chances in this one was MSU having a less-than-stellar outing the week before. After the Air Force game, I imagine CMU has the Spartan's full attention, which does not bode well for Bonamego's crew. MSU will be down Riley Bullough for the first half and Central will try to throw the ball all over the yard, but the Spartan defensive line should be able to pin their ears back and get after Rush. MSU gives up a couple plays down the field, but ultimately cruises into the Big Ten season 4-0.
MSU 41 - Central Michigan 10