New Mexico Bowl: A Central Michigan Q&A with James Jimenez
We get to know SDSU’s New Mexico Bowl opponent, the Central Michigan Chippewas, with James Jimenez of SB Nation’s Hustle Belt.
A drastic turnaround, but not a fluke.
The kickoff to college football’s bowl season is mere days away and the Mountain West’s seven-game slate kicks off, in part, this weekend when the San Diego State Aztecs and Central Michigan Chippewas face off in the New Mexico Bowl on Saturday, December 21.
The last time CMU played against a Mountain West opponent, it was in former Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen’s collegiate finale at the 2017 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. That game didn’t go particularly well for the Chips and neither did the entirety of 2018, when they had a case as the worst team in the country, but the arrival of a familiar coach, Jim McElwain, spurred one of college football’s biggest 180s this fall.
Mountain West Wire: It seems safe to say no one expected Central Michigan to be one failed Hail Mary away from winning the MAC title this fall, especially after bottoming out in 2018. Can you give us the short version of what spurred the drastic turnaround?
James Jimenez: The short version of what spurred the turnaround is a new coaching staff. Coach Bono (John Bonamego) was very well-beloved by players and fans alike (myself included), and was known to be someone who was very loyal to his guys. That’s not a terrible surprise, given he learned under Jim Caldwell while a member of the Lions and Sean Payton under the Saints before coming to Central. He was also an excellent recruiter, especially in-state. What he wasn’t was an X’s and O’s guy. He ran the wrong personnel and a bad scheme and stayed maybe a little too loyal to his guys until the very end, when it resulted in the worst season in program history.
What Jim McElwain brought to Mount Pleasant was a culture of accountability and a thorough understanding of the play-calling side of the sport. He brought in coaches from a lot of different backgrounds and experience levels on the staff to help build up the players who stayed, and he wasn’t afraid to mix things up when the situation called for it. That’s the mark of an excellent coach.
It also helps that the 2018 Chips were a very young squad, so that meant a lot of the players on the roster were motivated to prove a lot of their doubters wrong.
MWwire: What kind of a skill set has quarterback Quinten Dormady brought to the Chippewas offense?
Jimenez: Last year, the Chippewas rotated between Tony Poljan (now the starting tight end) and Tommy Lazzaro (the current Wildcat quarterback) and the result was one of the worst offenses in the FBS. Part of the reason it was so bad was because the QBs were abysmal whenit came to reading defenses; Lazzaro finished with twice as many interceptions as passing touchdowns, while Poljan was converted to a receiver halfway through the season. An inompatible offense is also to blame there.
With the addition of Dormady, the Chippewas get an extremely intelligent leader who understands how the defense is making adjustments and audibles into a look which gives the offense the best chance to succeed. His ability to read the defense before the play has helped sustain many of CMU’s drives on offense, especially once they get into rhythm. Dormady also gives CMU a pretty good arm on short-and-intermediate routes, with the ability to launch deep when necessary. He might check down a bit too much at times, but with the weapons CMU has at the skill position, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
MWwire: San Diego State’s secondary has been a tough nut to crack for many opponents this fall, but wide receivers Kalil Pimpleton and JaCorey Sullivan will certainly try. How do the two all-MAC pass catchers complement each other?
Jimenez: Kalil and JaCorey, besides being first-team All-MAC receivers, were former high school teammates at Michigan HS football powerhouse Muskegon. They’ve got an incredible chemistry which really helps the offense get moving.
Kalil was one of, if not the best, receivers in the conference in 2019 after having to sit in 2018 due to transfer rules, picking up 79 receptions for 823 yards and six touchdowns. What makes him so good is his elite top speed; he’s a burner once he gets going, and has taken the top off of defenses several times throughout the season. CMU also employs him in a number of ways; he’s often in motion on jet sweeps, can alternate between the slot and the outside receiving positions and can even be a passing threat (given his background as a quarterback.) He’s a small, shifty slot receiver from Central, so the comparison for him is usually Antonio Brown, but I’d say he’s closer to Golden Tate III in the way he moves in the open field and can be used by the offense.
JaCorey took a bit to get going this season, but he still finished as a top 5 receiver in the MAC, with 54 receptions for 776 yards and three touchdowns. He’s a guy who lines up primarily on the outside and offers big-play ability, as he averages an astounding 14.3 yards per catch. He’s got decent size, standing at six-foot-two, 196 lbs., and allows CMU an outlet for deep passes without having to force the issue. He’s got reliable hands, and is a favorite receiver of Dormady’s to target when he needs a sure reception.
MWwire: Aztecs fans know all about their strong defensive line, but they may not know the Chippewas are actually number one in the FBS by defensive stuff rate. Who among linebacker Troy Brown and defensive linemen Sean Adesanya and LaQuan Johnson — all of whom finished in the top five of all MAC defenders in tackles for loss — has been the most valuable contributor, in your opinion?
Jimenez: All three of those players have been fantastic for the Chippewas in 2019, but Brown has been the heart and soul of this CMU defense for the most part at the outside backer position. Brown stands at 85 total tackles, 16 tackles-for-loss, a sack and three interceptions in 2019, and has proven to be one of the most versatile players on the CMU defense, as he uses his former background as a safety to diagnose passing plays and running plays alike. Unfortunately, he’ll miss the first half of the upcoming game due to a targeting call in the MAC Championship Game, which could leave the linebacking corps a little shallow to start.
I personally love what Sean Adesanya brings to the table. He’s an excellent run stuffer with a high motor who is also adept at getting to the quarterback; he’s got 15.5 tackles-for-loss and seven sacks on the season so far coming out of the end position, LaQuan Johnson is only a redshirt freshman, but he’s already shown a lot of promise coming from both the defensive tackle and defensive end spots; Johnson is probably CMU’s best pass-rusher, with 32 tackles and six sacks this season to go along with his 13 tackles-for-loss.
They’re all major contributors, and they help to man an aggressive front seven which has proven to be amonst the best rushing or short-distance defenses in the nation all season.
MWwire: It’s tempting to see this New Mexico Bowl as a classic “offense vs. defense” tilt, but it could also become a straight-up defensive showdown. How do you see the game unfolding and why?
Jimenez:It’s really hard to tell, mostly because I don’t really know which CMU team will show up. They’re 8-5, yes, but they’re also frustatingly inconsistent as soon as they leave Kelly/Shorts Stadium; they’re 2-5 in road/neutral games, with their average points per game diving double-digits from ~45 per game at home to ~28 on the road.
CMU got a little too cute against Miami in what was essentially a home game at Ford Field a couple weeks back, and that’s a problem which has plagued them a bit at times during the season. A couple things I think will happen: they’ll probably lean a bit more on the running game this time around after limiting themselves to 50 yards on 17 carries vs. Miami, and they’ll probably empty out the bag of tricks on offense and special teams when they think it’s appropriate.
I think they’re going to be hungry to take home hardware for the trophy case, after missing out on the Victory Cannon (vs. rival WMU) and the Michigan MAC trophy (retained by WMU), AND the MAC Championship trophy (vs. Miami). I think it’ll be a very streaky, very stop-and-start game, which ends up being won by the team who is more efficient with the ball in their hands.