Andy Sneddon, CMUChippewas.com
MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. - Run the ball and create turnovers.
A formula that has produced winning football for generations.
It did again on Wednesday night as Central Michigan got 159 rushing yards from Jonathan Ward and its defense made five interceptions as the Chippewas posted a 42-30 Mid-American Conference victory over Eastern Michigan at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.
The win lifted the Chippewas to 6-4, 4-2 MAC and made them bowl eligible for the 10th time in the last 12 years.
It was an encore performance for Ward, a sophomore who last week finished with 213 all-purpose yards in a 35-28 win at Western Michigan. He was named the MAC West Offensive Player of the Week.
On Wednesday against Eastern (3-7, 1-5), Ward rolled up 186 all-purpose yards and scored two touchdowns. His 159 yards came on 19 carries and he had one catch for 27 yards.
"Jonathan Ward has been running like a mad man the past couple weeks and he's been running angry, so I'm just trying to figure out what he's mad about and I'm going to keep getting him mad," said wide receiver Corey Willis, who finished with 71 yards and two TDs on six receptions.
Clearly, the Chippewas have made strides in the run game. They finished with 177 on the ground, their third-highest total of the season, against the Eagles. They posted a season-best 256 last week against Western.
"I feel like we're getting into a rhythm as a whole as an offence all together," Ward said. "The run game is coming together and the run game sets up the passing game."
CMU quarterback Shane Morris finished 11-for-18 passing for 155 yards and three touchdowns.
Morris and Willis both threw key blocks on Ward's first TD, a career-long 79-yarder with under four minutes to play in the first quarter that broke a 7-7 tie. CMU never trailed after that.
On the play, Ward hit the line and found no daylight so he bounced outside, slipped a tackle, then ran between Willis and Morris as that pair threw downfield blocks.
"It's an indescribable feeling seeing (Willis), and it's rare to see your quarterback throwing blocks for you, so I appreciate them for that if it's allowing me to get into an open space and just run," Ward said.
Defending The Pass
The Chippewas intercepted Eastern quarterback Brogan Roback five times on the night. Their five picks gave them 16 on the season, and the total was one shy of the season-high six they made in their season opener, a 30-27 triple-overtime victory over Rhode Island.
The biggest interception came from senior cornerback Amari Coleman, who stepped in front of an Eagle receiver and raced 33 yards for a TD to ice the game with 48 seconds to play.
Sophomore cornerback Sean Bunting made two interceptions one week after he made his first of the season against Western Michigan. Safety Josh Cox and linebacker Alex Briones had CMU's other interceptions.
"They're huge," CMU coach John Bonamego said of the interceptions. "Especially the last one. It really iced the game and we've been waiting for Amari to get one of those, he's been real close on a few and just a tremendous break on the ball.
"It really started with the pass rush up front. Roback's an excellent quarterback. If you give him time, like a lot of guys, he'll pick you apart, but I didn't feel he ever had the chance to get in rhythm. He was having to scramble. It's a coordinated thing, the pass rush helps that secondary do their job. Just great effort all the way around in a lot of areas."
Briones and D'Andre Dill each recorded a sack, and the Chippewas had nine tackles-for-loss.
Cox leads the Chippewas with five interceptions, while Coleman, Bunting and Briones have three each.
Linebacker Michael Oliver led the Chippewa defense with seven tackles, while Bunting, safety Darwyn Kelly and linebacker Malik Fountain recorded six each.
Eastern Michigan scored on the first play of the game when Morris fumbled while being sacked by Maxx Crosby. Crosby scooped up the loose ball and raced 14 yards for a TD to give the Eagles a 7-0 lead just 14 seconds into the game.
CMU responded, scoring on four straight possessions to seize a 28-10 lead with under five minutes to play in the half.
Ward scored on a 3-yard run early in the third quarter to up the Chippewas' lead to 35-17. Eastern made things interesting by scoring two fourth-quarter TDs to pull within 35-30 with more than seven minutes to play.
The Eagles took possession at their own 26-yard line with 1:03 remaining. On the second play of the drive, Coleman made his pick-six to seal it.
With six victories, the Chippewas are now bowl eligible for the 10th time in the last 12 years.
CMU plays at Kent State on Tuesday, Nov. 14, and then closes the regular season at home on Nov. 24 against Northern Illinois. Victories in both games would give CMU eight on the season, their highest total since 2009.
"That was a huge win, but the way the bowl selection goes, six wins is nothing guaranteed," Willis said. "We've still got a lot of work to do. We've got Kent State on the clock and that's what we're locked in on.
"We've got to make sure that you are out there doing everything that you need to do to become better every day. Every time that you're not becoming better someone else is and they're going to take advantage."
Climbing The Ladder
Willis has seven TD catches this season. Six have come in the Chippewas' last three games.
He has 21 in his career, which places him fourth in program history. His next TD reception will tie him with Antonio Brown, who made 22 TD catches at CMU from 2007-09.
Brown, of course, has gone on to become one of the top receivers in the NFL.
"That's the first time I've heard that," Willis said when told where he was on the all-time list, and that he is one shy of Brown. "Right now I'm not going to worry about the individual stuff. But at the end of the day, if your name is even brought up in the same two, three sentences as Antonio Brown you're doing something right."
Michigan MAC Trophy
With back-to-back wins over Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan, the Chippewas have reclaimed the Michigan MAC Trophy, which goes to the team with the best head-to-head record against its in-state MAC rivals.
Western Michigan held the trophy for the last three years. The Chippewas now have it for the first time since 2013.
Last week, the Chippewas claimed the Cannon Trophy, also for the first time since 2013, by beating Western.
CMU place-kicker Michael Armstrong made all seven of his extra-point attempts on Wednesday. He is 34-of-35 this season.
CMU punter Jack Sheldon turned in another solid performance, punting eight times for an average of 40.2 yards with a long of 52. Two of his punts were downed inside the Eastern 20-yard line.
Sheldon earned the MAC West Special Teams Player of the Week Award for his performance last week at Western.