OXFORD, OHIO - NOVEMBER 20: Tyler Gilchrist #25 of the Akron Zips is tackled by the Miami of Ohio Redhawks during the second quarter at Yager Stadium on November 20, 2019 in Oxford, Ohio. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)
Photo: Justin Casterline
Photo: Justin Casterline

MAC Championship Game: Miami set to face high-powered Central Michigan offense

When the sixth-year RedHawks coach learned they wouldn’t be facing Central Michigan during the regular season, he started wishing that the two teams might meet anyway.

“If we did that, it would mean either I was dreaming or we were in the (Mid-American Conference) Championship Game,” Martin said.

One could say it’s both. The RedHawks and the Chippewas are scheduled to square off in the conference championship game at noon on Saturday in Detroit’s 70,000-seat Ford Field.

The East Division-champion RedHawks are playing in the MAC Championship Game for the first time since 2010. West-champion Central Michigan’s appearance is its first since 2009.

The Chippewas’ story is one of college football’s best of 2019. After going 1-11 in 2018, Central Michigan brought in a whole new coaching staff led by former Florida and Colorado State coach Jim McElwain. The Chippewas were picked in to finish last in the six-team MAC West, but they won six of their last seven games to capture the division championship and create a rematch of the 2007 MAC Championship Game in which they bested the RedHawks.

Central Michigan’s offense, behind 6-foot-5 senior quarterback Quinten Dormady, leads the MAC in total offense and passing offense while ranking second in scoring against MAC teams. Wide receiver JaCorey Sullivan leads the conference in average receiving yards per game while teammate Kalil Pimpleton ranks third. Senior running back Jonathan Ward ranks fifth against MAC teams with an average of 109.1 rushing yards per game and second with an average of 135.7 all-purpose yards per game, just ahead of sophomore running back Kobe Lewis’s 129.5 yards per game.

Ward already has reach four figures in rushing yards with 1,056. Lewis is 47 short at 953.

“They have weapons all across the board,” said fourth-year junior cornerback Emmanuel Rugamba, who blocked a punt against Ball State on Friday that freshman defensive end Lonnie Phelps picked up and returned for a touchdown. “Watching the films, there’s no room for complacency. We have to mind our ‘Ps’ and ‘Qs.’ We can’t give them second chances.”

Defensively, the Chippewas rank second in the conference with 12 interceptions. While Martin recognizes the romance of Central Michigan’s turnaround, it’s not as alluring to him as it is to others.

“Two years ago, they were one of the best teams in the league,” he pointed out. “Last year was a blip on the radar. They brought in a high-profile coach, and they did a crazy good job getting the kids to buy in.

“They have a crazy great receiving corps. It’s by far the best receiving corps in the league. They have an NFL-style quarterback with a crazy strong arm. Once he got settled in, their offense took off.”

Miami’s numbers aren’t nearly as gaudy. The RedHawks finished the MAC season ranked eighth in scoring, 10thin both total and rushing yards per game and fifth in passing yards per game., Defensively, Miami allowed the second-fewest points per game, third-fewest yards per games and was fifth in rushing yards allowed per game while leading the MAC in pass defense.

Phelps also logged his own blocked punt against the Cardinals on his way to being named the MAC East Special Teams Player of the Week on Monday.

For the first time all season, the Chippewas will have to deploy a revamped offensive line after right guard Oge Udeogu suffered a broken arm in their season-finale win over Toledo. Udeogu had been part of a five-player unit that started all 12 of Central Michigan’s regular-season games.

Miami is coming off a 41-27 loss at Ball State in which the Cardinals scored 27 unanswered points in the second half. Both the RedHawks and Chippewas lost to Western Michigan and beat Bowling Green and Northern Illinois, but Central Michigan lost to a Buffalo team that Miami beat, while the Chippewas edged by one point the Ball State team that knocked off the RedHawks.

“It starts with them on defense,” McElwain said of Miami. “They do an outstanding job with their line movement up front. That could give us a lot of problems. The things they major in are things that gave us a little bit of a problem this year. They’re very physical. They have a great front offensively. They offensive line does an outstanding job. Something that’s going to be a great challenge for us is neutralizing the things they do so well. Their special teams – blocked punts. They have a great ki

cker. One of the things that goes unnoticed is hidden yardage, and they’ve done a great job of that all year.”

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