Unlike last season’s opener, the national attention isn’t centered around Michigan’s game, but that doesn’t mean Brady Hoke will prepare any less for Central Michigan than he did for Alabama. As he said in his Monday press conference, it’s the fist chance to see where the team stands after a long offseason, with a new quarterback, and plenty of youth to go around.
After all, Central is the team that finished last season with four straight wins, the team that won its bowl game, the team that had the first overall pick in April’s NFL Draft, and the team that has a running back who has seven consecutive 100-yard rushing games. No other opponent on Michigan’s schedule can lay claim to more than one of those feats.
The last time these two teams faced off was the second game of 2006 when Michigan won convincingly, 41-17. Coincidentally, that game preceded a matchup with Notre Dame, which Michigan also won.
But times are different. Michigan is on its second different coach than the one who won that game, Lloyd Carr, and has suffered its first ever defeat at the hands of a team from the Mid-American Conference. Alas, MAC teams can no longer be taken for granted. Or can they?
Central returns 15 starters and both specialists from last year’s 7-6 squad, but this is still a team that finished fourth in the MAC West. Yes, the Chips finished the season with four straight wins, but they came against Eastern Michigan, Miami (Ohio), UMass, and Western Kentucky – teams who finished with a combined record of 14-35. That sentence above about the claims to fame CMU carries into this game? Not looking so hot right now.
Let’s take a look at how the teams match up.
Michigan defense vs CMU offense: When Central Michigan has the ball
Eight starters return on offense, but the three that don’t are pretty big losses. As we discussed in Monday’s First Look, 99.6 percent of last year’s passing yards are gone with the departure of quarterback Ryan Radcliff. The man who represents the other 0.4 percent is junior Cody Kater who completed 2-of-4 passes for 12 yards last season. But he does have some college experience, albeit in a much smaller capacity. After spending a redshirt freshman season at Cincinnati, he transferred to Grand Rapids Community College, leading GRCC to an 11-0 record. Last season he transferred to CMU where he backed up Radcliff and now has won the opportunity to make his first every FBS start in the Big House.
Another key departure was receiver Cody Wilson who finished second on the team with 840 receiving yards, which means Kater has one less proven target to throw to. The good news for him is the leading receiver, Titus Davis is back, and the 6-2, 190-pound junior from Wheaton, Ill. has big play ability. He averaged 20 yards per catch in 2012 with a long of 92 and caught eight touchdowns. He had a monster game against Western Michigan, catching 10 passes for 208 yards and a touchdown. Against a similar opponent, Michigan State, he caught four for 64 yards.
The third big loss from the CMU roster was left tackle Eric Fisher, who was the first pick in the NFL Draft. He helped pave the way for what was actually a mediocre running game, but a very talented running back. Zurlon Tipton rushed for 1,492 yards and 19 touchdowns, averaging 5.9 yards per carry. He surpassed 100 yards in each of the final seven games, including a 243-yards performance against Michigan’s Week 3 opponent, Akron. Against Michigan State, he rushed 11 times for 62 yards, and while he averaged 19.4 carries per game throughout the season, his workload went up to 25.3 in the final six games.
Central was a very balanced team last season in terms of plays run with 415 rushing attempts and 413 passing attempts, but the passing game was much more successful. That might not be the case this season with a new quarterback, however, Kater did complete 68.3 percent of his passes for 2,218 yards and 19 touchdowns for GRCC last season. Yes, quality of competition is a major caveat, but this isn’t simply a kid straight out of high school.
With questions about Michigan’s defensive line yet to be answered, look for Central to feed the ball to Tipton early and often. In that same vein, expect Michigan to gear up to stop the run, forcing Kater to try to beat them with his arm. The matchup with Blake Countess or Raymon Taylor on Titus Davis will be one to watch. Phil Steele put Davis among his top 25 receivers in college football and CMU receivers coach Mose Rison compares Davis to Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown. At 6-2, he’ll have a good four inches on any of Michigan’s corners.
Michigan offense vs Central Michigan defense: When Michigan has the ball
The Central Michigan defense is led by its duo of returning linebackers, Justin Cherocci and Shamari Benton, who combined for 258 tackles a year ago. Chrroci ranked 19th nationally with 132 and led the nation with 89 assisted tackles. Benton ranked 24th nationally with 126 and led the team with 54 solo tackles.
The line returns both on the interior, including sophomore Jabari Dean, who amassed 28 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery as a freshman in 2012. Both ends have to be replaced, but Central got a transfer from Michigan State who will contribute right away. Senior Jeremy Gainer recorded 13 total tackles and two forced fumbles in 28 career games played for the Spartans, mostly on special teams, but he’ll be an instant upgrade for the Chippewas.
In the secondary, two starting corners and free safety Avery Cunningham are back, but the main guy who has to be replaced is All-MAC safety Jahleel Addae, who signed with the San Diego Chargers as an undrafted free agent. Cunningham tallied 88 tackles last season, while the other returnees, Jarret Chapman and Jason Wilson recorded 51 and 50, respectively. Wilson added a pair of interceptions.
The 4-2-5 defense that Enos runs relies on good play from the back seven, and that’s what they got last season. But the rush defense was the weak spot, giving up 192 yards per game, which ranked 93rd nationally. That means Michigan will feature a heavy dose of Fitzgerald Toussaint and the rest of his running mates.
However, Michigan State was a very run-heavy team in 2012 and only gained 173 yards on 4.2 yards per carry against CMU last September. Le’Veon Bell was held to 70, his third lowest output of the season behind Ohio State (45) and Michigan (68). Conversely, the Spartans torched Central’s secondary for 322 yards on 25-of-37 passing. It was quarterback Andrew Maxwell’s third-highest total of the season.
Central clearly doubled down on the run after seeing Bell run 44 times for 210 yards against Boise State the week before, and that allowed the Spartan passing game to go off. Expect similar results on Saturday, though Michigan’s offense figures to be a bit more balanced.
The other third: Special Teams
Kicker David Harman is gone, and the replacement hasn’t been named as of yet. Redshirt freshman Ron Coluzzi and sophomore Matt Cotiguala are battling it out. Senior punter Richie Hogan is back after finishing fourth in the MAC with a 41.8-yard average per punt. Titus Davis is the main man returning punts, while Courtney Williams will handle the kick return duties.
Central will test Michigan’s defense with Tipton on the ground and Davis through the air, but don’t expect the Chips to hang around for more than a half. Michigan’s defense will flex its muscle, forcing Kater to try to beat it through the air. We’ll get a nice look at the ability of Frank Clark, Keith Heitzman, Chris Wormley, and Taco Charlton to get to the quarterback.
Offensively, Michigan will use a balanced attack, perhaps more balanced than Hoke would normally want in this type of game. The reason is that instead of simply running the ball at will against an inferior opponent, it will be important to work on the passing game with an unproven receiving corps (outside of Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo) before Notre Dame comes to town next weekend. Look for Gardner to give Jehu Chesson some targets to get him involved and see what he can do.
The Wolverines will put this one away by the third quarter and get Shane Morris, Derrick Green, and DeVeon Smith some playing time.
Michigan 41 – Central Michigan 17