Andy Sneddon, CMUChippewas.com
MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. – Rome was not built in a day.
Nor is a potent offense.
When Central Michigan football coach John Bonamego announced that he had installed a spread, up-tempo offense prior to the 2017 season, he talked frequently about two requisites: patience and commitment.
That offense, most figured, would produce yards and points, primarily through the air. And certainly, the passing game has been effective – highly effective at times.
But it has been the Chippewas’ run game that has shined of late, leading to a three-game win streak and victories in four of their last five games.
Last week’s 42-30 win over Eastern Michigan lifted the Chippewas to 6-4 (4-2 Mid-American Conference) and made them bowl eligible for the 10th time in the last 12 years.
CMU will look to extend its win streak on Tuesday (7 p.m.) when it goes to Kent State (2-8, 1-5) for a MAC game.
It’s no coincidence that the run game has been a critical component in the Chippewas’ recent surge. In their last three games, the Chippewas are averaging a shade under 200 yards per on the ground, and they have scored an average of 44.3 points.
CMU has averaged 398.6 yards in offense over that three-game stretch.
“I’m pleased with the way we’ve been able to run it recently and I think that we need to continue to build on it,” Bonamego said as he prepared his team to face the Golden Flashes, who have lost three straight games and are surrendering an average of 228.5 yards per game on the ground. They rank 11th in the MAC in that category.
Bonamego said the success of the run game is the result of a long-term commitment to the offense. And it was clearly evident that the Chippewas required improvement in that area when they lost to Toledo, 30-10, a month ago.
The game was played in the driving rain, rendering the passing game ineffective. The Chippewas finished with a season-low 62 yards on the ground in that loss to the Rockets.
Bonamego harkened back to a lesson he learned from his coach at Central Michigan, the legendary Herb Deromedi.
“You have to know the environment that you play in,” Bonamego, a walk-on at CMU in the mid-1980s, recalled Deromedi as having said. “You play in a northern climate, the weather becomes a factor. It’s harder to throw the football and you have to be able to run it. It’s something that we’ve committed to.”
Sophomore running back Jonathan Ward has been the torch-bearer in that improved ground attack. He has run for 386 yards – including a career-high 159 last week against Eastern -- and scored five rushing touchdowns in the Chippewas’ last three games. He is averaging 7.72 yards per carry in that stretch.
Ward ranks fourth in the MAC with an average of 75.1 rushing yards per game, and is third with 110.4 per game in all-purpose yardage. He has caught 39 passes for 353 yards.
Ward has scored a team-high eight touchdowns – seven rushing, one receiving – and ranks second on the team with 48 points.
Place-kicker Michael Armstrong leads CMU with 51 points. He has made 33 of his 34 extra-point attempts, and is 6-for-9 on field goal tries.
Near the Top
Central Michigan made five interceptions in its victory last week over Eastern Michigan, bringing its season total to 16.
CMU ranks third in FBS behind Florida Atlantic (18) and South Florida (17). With 14 picks, Northern Illinois ranks second behind CMU in the MAC and is fifth in the nation.
Chippewa senior safety Josh Cox leads the MAC with five interceptions.
Sophomore cornerback Sean Bunting made two interceptions against Eastern. He had his first of the season a week earlier at Western Michigan.
The emergence of Bunting allowed the Chippewas the luxury of moving Cox back to safety, his natural position, from cornerback. Bunting saw ample playing time last season as a nickel back.
“I think that really strengthened our entire back end,” Bonamego said. “You always want to try to get your best players on the field. … We have really benefited from that.”
The Chippewas share the national lead in turnovers gained with 27 – 16 interceptions, 11 fumble recoveries.. They are tied with Washington and Wyoming.
While the secondary and the linebacking corps – those who end up with the ball in their hands on an interception – get the credit, a pick is rarely the result of a great individual effort, Bonamego said.
“I don’t think you can understate the importance that our pass rush played in those interceptions (against Eastern),” he said. “ It was an uncomfortable day for their quarterback, there weren’t many times where he would drop back to throw where he really had a clean pocket, where he could just take his time and try to locate receivers down the field.”
That the Chippewas have been beset by injuries to the defensive front makes it even more remarkable that CMU has recorded the high number of interceptions that it has, Bonamego said.
Star defensive end Joe Ostman has missed the last two games with an injury, and several others on the two-deep along the front four have either missed games because of injury or are out for the season.
“You don’t make excuses for it, you just kind of get the next guy ready to go and I think our defensive staff has done a great job with that,” Bonamego said.
Scouting Kent State
It’s been a struggle for the Golden Flashes this season. Their victories have come over Howard, 38-31; and Miami (Ohio), 17-14.
Kent State lost starting quarterback Nick Holley in its third game of the season, a 21-0 loss to Marshall. Holley rushed for 144 yards and threw for 102 in the Golden Flashes’ 27-24 win over the Chippewas last season at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.
Junior George Bollas has stepped in at quarterback and has thrown for 779 yards and two touchdowns. Freshman Dustin Crum has also seen time under center. Last week in a 48-20 loss at Western Michigan, he scored on a 58-yard run.
The Golden Flashes ranked 10th in total defense in the MAC. Kent State punter Derek Adams leads the MAC with an average of 44.4 yards per punt. He has punted a league-high 68 times this season, and 17 of his punts have gone for at least 50 yards.
Few, if any, college football teams can match Kent State for its difficult nonconference schedule.
The Golden Flashes opened the season with a 56-3 loss to fifth-ranked Clemson, the defending national champion. They lost to No. 19 Louisville, 42-3, in their fourth game. Kent State’s other nonconference loss came to Marshall, 21-0. The Thundering Herd is 7-3 and tied for second in Conference USA East.
A year ago, Alabama and Penn State were among the Golden Flashes’ first four opponents.
The Chippewas played three Power-5 Conference teams – Kansas, Boston College and Syracuse – this season. They were the only MAC team to play as many as three, and it marked the fourth consecutive year that CMU has played three Power-5 members.
“I think it’s important to play those games,” Bonamego said. “I think they’re important selling points for your program, the exposure’s good. I think it’s a way to measure yourself against what everybody perceives to be the best; it’s a great tool for us in recruiting to be able to sell kids on the fact that we’re not intimidated to play those type of teams.”
Senior defensive tackle Chris Kantzavelos will wear No. 21 against the Golden Flashes.
A different Chippewa wears the number each week in honor of the late Derrick Nash, who succumbed to leukemia in June, 2015. Last week, quarterback Shane Morris drew the honor; two weeks ago against Western Michigan, it was Corey Willis.
The Chippewas close the regular season at home on Friday, Nov. 24, against Northern Illinois. The Huskies are 7-3 and share the lead in the MAC West with Toledo at 5-1.
Kickoff for that game has not yet been determined.