Andy Sneddon, CMUChippewas.com
MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. - Oklahoma State spoiled John Bonamego's debut as Central Michigan's coach on Thursday, as the Cowboys handed the Chippewas a 24-13 loss at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.
It was Bonamego's first game as coach at Central, where he was a two-time letterwinner as a walk-on in the mid-1980s before going on to a career first as a college assistant, then 16 years as an NFL aide.
When he took over the program in February, he called it his dream job.
"I am pleased with our effort," said an obviously drained Bonamego, who was diagnosed with cancer in June and completed radiation and chemotherapy treatments two weeks ago. "I'm pleased with how we played and with the physicality and emotion and energy and effort.
"I thought they hung in there with a very tough opponent for four quarters, slugged it out and proved that they belonged on the field. I was pleased with the fight they showed. That's got to continue, that's part of what we are as a team, a university, as a school. It's pride, it's toughness."
On Thursday, the Big 12 Cowboys used a no-huddle spread offense that wore down the Chippewas and took its toll in the second half. Oklahoma State led 10-6 at halftime and it finished with 419 yards in total offense, 278 of it in the final two quarters.
Central Michigan quarterback Cooper Rush turned in a solid performance, completing 28 of 41 pass attempts for 225 yards and leading the Chippewas with a career-best 51 yards rushing.
"I thought Cooper played a great game, kept us in the game," Bonamego said. "Bottom line is we just made too many mistakes against a quality opponent. We can't turn the ball over and we can't have penalties."
Rush, a junior making his 24th consecutive start, showed some of the grit and toughness that Bonamego so desires from his players when he put his head down at the goal line and ran over a Cowboy defensive back to complete an 16-yard third-quarter touchdown run that briefly put the Chippewas up, 13-10.
"I think the receiver group did a great job against that speed of the Big 12, they were getting open," Rush said, "which makes my job easy and I think they showed people what they could do and their explosiveness. We just left a few plays out there. A couple more and we would have had that one."
But that Rush was CMU's top ground-gainer was telling. The Chippewas finished with just 78 yards rushing, about half of what they averaged per game in 2014.
"We felt like it was important to establish the run against them, try to shorten the game a little bit," Bonamego said. "We weren't as efficient as we felt like we could've been."
"I think maybe we just got worn down at the end but I thought our guys made a tremendous effort. You have to give credit to them, they executed and made plays they needed to make down the stretch and we didn't.
"I think in the fourth quarter when we weren't able to convert on third down, we were going three-and-out in a couple series and our defense had to get right back out on the field. If anything that may have taken a toll on some of the guys."
Rush was intercepted once, on his first throw of the game, and that came deep in his own territory and led to a 22-yard Ben Grogan field goal that put OSU up, 3-0.
CMU junior Brian Eavey sandwiched two field goals - the first a 31-yarder, the second from 26 -- around a 1-yard TD run by Cowboy backup quarterback J.W. Walsh which left CMU down just four, 10-6, at the break.
But on both Chippewa scoring drives, penalties stalled potential touchdowns and instead forced CMU to settle for field goals.
"We had two penalties in the first half where we traded touchdowns for field goals," Bonamego said. "Both times we got into the red zone, and one time it was a procedure and one time it was a holding penalty.
"(They) got us off schedule and we ended up settling for field goals. We like our field goal kicker but we need to score touchdowns down there, especially against a team like this that's such a high octane offense."
OSU quarterback Mason Rudolph finished with 266 yards on 22-of-32 passing. Less than two minutes after Rush gave the Chippewas the 13-10 advantage, Rudolph bolted 21 yards for a score to put the Cowboys back in front, 17-13.
Rudolph connected with Marcell Ateman for an 18-yard TD pass early in the fourth quarter to extend the OSU advantage to two scores.