Andy Sneddon, CMUChippewas.com
MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. – Alex Briones, as did many in Kelly/Shorts Stadium, perhaps felt relief more than anything.
Briones and his teammates could finally exhale after the Central Michigan football team pulled out a 30-27 triple-overtime victory over Rhode Island in the Chippewas’ season opener on Thursday.
“Big time relief,” said Briones, a junior linebacker who turned in a whale of a performance in his first collegiate start. “Obviously things didn’t go the way we wanted them to go, but the main thing is that we came out with a win. We will get back to the drawing board this week and just get ready for next Saturday.”
That’s when the Chippewas will unquestionably take a step up in level of competition when they go to Kansas, a member of the Big 12 Conference. The Jayhawks play host to Southeast Missouri State on Saturday in their season opener.
CMU got all it could handle and more from Rhode Island, a Football Championship Subdivision team that plays in the Colonial Athletic Association and won a combined four games over the past three seasons.
“When Rhode Island only has one FBS school on their schedule, and it was us, they’re going to play like it’s the Super Bowl,” CMU quarterback Shane Morris said. “We expected that, they did well. They came out and played us hard.”
Briones led the Chippewas with 11 tackles including eight solo stops. He recorded two tackles-for-loss including a sack, and had one of CMU’s six interceptions.
“We were flying around, and everyone was making great plays,” Briones said. “Honestly, our corners were playing well on coverage, and those interceptions were big.”
CMU’s six picks – two each by Josh Cox and Amari Coleman, and one by Darwyn Kelly and Alex Briones – tied the program record. Three times in history a CMU team has recorded as many interceptions in a single game, most recently in a 1990 game against Miami (Ohio).
Coming out party
Morris, a graduate transfer from Michigan, had an up-and-down CMU debut. In the end, he was good enough – as was his team – to get the win.
Operating out of CMU’s new no-huddle spread offense, he completed 25 of 49 passes for 226 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
His fourth-quarter fumble led to Rhode Island’s game-tying touchdown with under three minutes to play.
His touchdown pass was a 4-yard strike in the back of the end zone to sophomore wideout Brandon Childress. It was Morris’ first collegiate TD pass.
“I think the receivers did a good job tonight,” he said. “They did a great job catching it … and I need to be better. I need to make better throws, complete deep balls.”
Morris operated exclusively from the shotgun formation and was sacked twice, but one of those came when center Austin Doan snapped the ball over his head. That miscue happened at least three times in the game.
“It’s both of us, we need to figure it out,” Morris said. “We have to work together, and figure it out. It happens.”
CMU coach John Bonamego stuck to his plan to play redshirt freshman quarterback Tony Poljan, who played two series and completed three of his five pass attempts for 27 yards.
“The plan was to use Tony more,” Bonamego said in explaining his decision to start Morris. “I thought Tony did a decent job when he was in there, but we’ve got a big body of work we looked at over training camp. And when I tell you we charted everything, we charted everything. Every play, every throw, every check, every decision.
“It was looked at intensely every single day because I wanted to make sure we were making the right decision.”
Bonamego on the performance of Morris, who made two starts during his four years at Michigan: “I think it could be better. I have a lot of confidence in him. He is a very intelligent football player. Sometimes you just never know what’s going to happen until you get into the live game situations and you have live bullets. I think overall, yes, I was (satisfied with his performance), but there were probably a few decisions he probably could have done better. At that position, there are always a handful of plays that you will say, ‘well maybe should have thrown it here or maybe should have thrown away.’ I like the fact that we’re taking shots down the field. I’d like to see us complete a few more balls underneath, keep drives moving, keep the chains moving.”
Morris, on his performance, and that of the offense overall: “We’re 1-0 but we have a lot of things to work on. We have to go back to the drawing board, we have to do whatever it is to get better, and the coaches are going to grind this weekend to figure that out. We will get back on it. We’re a lot better than we played tonight. I’m a lot better than I played tonight. I think everyone is, we just have to go out there and do it.”
Morris was one of three graduate transfers to start for the Chippewas on Thursday.
The others were safety Darwyn Kelly (Illinois) and placekicker Michael Armstrong (SMU).
Kelly made two tackles and had an interception, while Armstrong was good on three of his four field goal attempts. He made two from 22 yards and another from 39. He missed from 46 yards. One of his 22-yarders came in the first overtime period, and it was a must-make. Had he missed, the game would have been over and Rhode Island would have walked away with a 24-21 victory.
“I think Michael did a really good job,” Bonamego said. “He’s in his fourth year of college football, but I think that’s probably the first game he has ever started. I don’t know how many field goal attempts he has had at SMU. I think he had one, maybe two. To come into a game like this, especially down the stretch, in overtime, those are big kicks. To get down there and come away with points, it’s important to be able to do that. I was very happy. That was one of the bright spots on special teams.”
Ward breaks out
Sophomore Jonathan Ward had by far his best game as a Chippewa, rushing for 147 yards on 19 carries (a 7.7 yard average) with one touchdown.
Ward showed flashes of potential last season, when he rushed for 200 yards on 36 carries. His 36-yard TD run early in the fourth quarter on Thursday – on which he left a would-be tackler in the dust with a nifty change of direction – was the longest run of his career.
Ward carried nine times for 61 yards in the first half on Thursday, and 10 times for 86 yards after halftime.
“Jonathan Ward is a talented young player – electric,” Bonamego said. “He just got stronger as the game went on. He had some nice looks and he ran well. Overall, I am pleased with how he ran the football.”
Devon Spalding added 70 yards on 20 carries for the Chippewas, and even Morris got into the act, finishing with 32 net yards on seven attempts. Morris showed some moxie during CMU’s first touchdown drive, running 14 yards for a first down on third-and-13, and leaping over a tackler in the process.
Morris then completed four consecutive passes, the last of which went to Brandon Childress for a TD to up CMU’s lead to 10-0.
“I don’t know where that (leap) came from,” he said, “but when something like that happens it elevates people around you and then you get excited when you throw a touchdown pass after. That’s great, and my confidence stayed (up) the whole game. I tried not to get too high or too low when things happen -- when good things happen or when I make mistakes.”
The Chippewas finished with 499 yards, 253 through the air, 246 on the ground. They also had 24 first downs to Rhode Island’s 15.
Only once last season did CMU rush for more yardage than it did on Thursday night.
“It (running) was a little tougher than we thought it would be, but we did a good job of committing to it and staying with it,” Bonamego said. “We had 50 rushing attempts for 246 yards. I think that says something. If you take away a couple holding penalties, it’s a bigger day than that even.”