Andy Sneddon, CMUChippewas.com
ATHENS, Ohio – Nobody was happier that Tyler Conklin was back on the field than Tyler Conklin.
Well, except for maybe his teammates, his coaches, and every Central Michigan football fan.
Conklin made his 2017 debut on Saturday, giving the Chippewas a major boost both in production and enthusiasm in their 26-23 Mid-American Conference victory over Ohio.
The win snapped a three-game losing streak and it lifted CMU to 3-3, 1-1 MAC.
“You sit out the first five games of your senior year, it was tough,” said Conklin, who injured his foot in preseason practice. “To come in here and beat a team that was in the MAC Championship last year, that’s huge. That’s good for our confidence and we’re slowly getting healthy.”
Conklin caught 10 passes for 136 yards and two touchdowns. Both the reception and yardage totals were career highs for the senior tight end who this season was on the Preseason Mackey Award Watch List. The award goes to the top tight end in college football.
“He’s a difference-maker on the football field,” CMU coach John Bonamego said. “It’s a reason why he’s a captain. He’s a lot to handle from a defensive perspective.”
It didn’t take long for Conklin to make his presence felt. His first reception went for 19 yards on the Chippewas’ opening drive. He capped the drive with a 16-yard touchdown reception, bowling over a Bobcat safety at the goal line. His 10-yard TD reception put the Chippewas up, 26-14, early in the fourth quarter.
The game also marked the return of senior wide receiver Corey Willis, who missed CMU’s last three games with a hand injury. The speedy and explosive Willis was used primarily as a decoy, and his presence clearly opened things up for the likes of Conklin and the rest of the receiving corps.
“With Corey coming back, that’s huge,” Conklin said. “We feel like we’re the team we once were. It’s a great spark.
CMU quarterback Shane Morris completed 25 of 35 pass attempts for 249 yards.
The Chippewas clearly needed Saturday’s win in the worst way. A loss would have dropped them to 0-2 in the conference, a major obstacle to overcome.
The fact that it came on the road in a difficult place to play and against a team that last year won the MAC East and played in the league title game reiterated to Bonamego what he has long thought about his football team.
“I’m really, really proud of the grit that our team showed,” he said. “Everything didn’t go our way today. We definitely made our fair share of mistakes, but we made some things happen.
“There’s no silver bullets out there. You just have to stick to what you believe in, re-commit yourself, pay attention to detail, continue to work hard. There is success right around the corner. Sometimes it doesn’t seem that way, but you really have to continue to commit to the process. … It really comes down to attention to detail and not hurting yourself. You just battle back, you stay in the moment. You can’t live in the past. Keep your eyes forward and you keep grinding.”
Senior defensive end Joe Ostman echoed Bonamego’s sentiments.
“There’s no doubt, we were looking at it as a must-win game if we wanted to accomplish our goals this season,” he said. “It’s a huge win this season and I’m very proud of the way the team fought. That’s a good football team we just played. Ohio’s a very good football team.”
The game swung in the Chippewas’ favor late in the first half.
With Ohio leading, 14-7, the Bobcats threw a long touchdown pass that was nullified by an illegal procedure penalty. They settled for a field goal attempt with 6 seconds remaining in the half.
CMU defensive tackle Chris Kantzavelos blocked Louie Zervos’ 50-yard attempt, and cornerback Sean Bunting scooped up the loose ball and raced 60 yards for a touchdown.
The Chippewas mishandled the snap on the extra-point attempt, but they had drawn to 14-13 when the game could have been 21-7 or 17-7.
“Huge spark,” Ostman said. “Chris Kantzavelos made the play. Huge play when we needed him. I can’t say enough about how big a play that was. It swung momentum going into the half. There’s no doubt. Could have been the difference in the game. Big-time play.”
CMU’s defense forced four turnovers, including three fumbles.
Ostman forced two of the fumbles and Mike Danna forced the third. Safety Josh Cox recorded his team-high fourth interception of the season and returned it 45 yards.
Cox led the defense with a career-high 11 tackles, while Bunting also had a career high (nine).
Ostman and Danna each had a sack and the Chippewas recorded six tackles-for-loss. Trevor Apsey, Kantzavelos and Danna each recovered a fumble.
“I try to play with that feeling of desperation every game and that hunger every game,” Ostman said. “Today there’s no doubt our backs were against the wall and we just had to respond and I’m really proud of the way that our guys fought.”
Ohio converted seven of its eight third-down opportunities in the first half, but finished the game 10 of 15 in that category.
After the Chippewas extended their lead to 26-14 with over 10 minutes to play, the Bobcats blocked a CMU punt out of the end zone for a safety to cut the lead to 26-16.
Ohio then scored on its next possession to draw to 26-23 with 5:01 left.
The Chippewas never allowed Ohio a chance to tie. CMU picked up three first downs on its next possession to milk the final 5:01 off the clock. The game ended with Morris taking a knee at the Ohio 41-yard line.
CMU converted three third downs on its final possession, the biggest coming on third-and-9 at the Chippewa 48 when Morris, under heavy pressure, found Mark Chapman over the middle for an 11-yard gain.
“It’s those type of plays that kind of get lost in a game like this that are just huge,” Bonamego said. “I couldn’t be more proud of our players and our coaches. They earned this one.”