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Know thy Opponent 2007: Central Michigan Chippewas

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Okay, I’ll admit it. It’s a really, really slow day at the ol’ temp job, but until this blog starts paying high dividends it needs to be there. At least there is the time to do some writing and think about college football appearing on the horizon.

Up next in this 12-part preview is what I view as our most dangerous non-conference opponent in 2007. I know this will cause an uproar with any Notre Dame fan that comes across this site, but I qualify this game with a caveat. Pretend you’re Purdue and you have two opponents sitting on your schedule, but you don’t know their names. Both teams won 10 games last season. Both teams lost to Michigan by more than 24 points last year in successive weeks. Both teams also feature offensive-minded coaches who like to spread the ball around.

Team A won its conference championship and is favored to do so again this season. They return seven starters on offense, seven on defense, and the bulk of those returning offensive starters are key playmakers. Team B is coming off of two straight BCS bowl appearances where it got trounced each time despite having a high caliber offense. Nearly everyone who even touched the ball offensively the past two years needs to be replaced, and Team B has a defense that barely slowed anyone down and hasn’t seen vast improvement. Team A is expected to be better this year, while Team B is expected to be significantly worse.

Team A is starting a sophomore at QB that blew up last year and is expected to be even better this season, while team B has yet to settle on a starting quarterback, and may go with a true freshman with an injured elbow.

One final factor comes from Team A getting it’s best shot to make some national noise by facing us, while Team B will view us as their fifth toughest opponent at best. On the other hand, we will be much more focused on Team B than we likely will be against Team A.
Which team do you think is more dangerous?

Team B, is of course, Notre Dame, while team A is none other than our third opponent on the season, the Central Michigan Chippewas.

Last Season for the Chippewas:

2006 was a banner year for the Chips as they went to their first bowl game in 12 years and won 10 games for the first time since 1979. Central Michigan started last year at 0-2 after losing a very close 31-24 game at home to Boston College, then dropping a road contest at Michigan 41-17. In the Boston College game the Chips had a chance to tie late deep in their Eagle territory but an interception in the final two minutes sealed the deal. CMU later dropped games to Kentucky (45-36) and Northern Illinois (31-10), losing all four games to bowl-bound teams. Central’s only wins over a bowl teams before its bowl game came against Western Michigan by a 31-7 count, and against Ohio in the MAC chacmpionship 31-10. They may have only played in the MAC, but six bowl-bound opponents for a MAC squad isn’t bad.

The Chippewas capped last season with a 31-14 win over Middle Tennessee State in the Motor City Bowl. This was the program’s first bowl game win ever, and it gave the Chips a 3-4 overall record against bowl teams in 2006. Historically the Chippewas have been up and down. They won a Division II National championship in 1974, but have only been to three total bowl games. They now appear to be in an upswing, and are projected to repeat as champions of the MAC. We should be able to get a good feel for how we’ll perform against them as they play Toledo the week before coming to West Lafayette and the week after we face the Rockets.

This is a much, much different team than we faced in the only two previous meetings. In 1999 we torched the Chips 58-16 and blanked them 48-0 a year later in the rematch. We also should get used to seeing them as they will be returning to Ross-Ade Stadium in 2008.

Central Michigan Offense:

This is why this is a very dangerous team we cannot afford to overlook. It all begins with quarterback Dan LeFevour. He took over in the first game last year thanks to an early injury to Brian Brunner and made the offense the best the MAC had to offer. Brunner returns as a backup, but LeFevour is only a sophomore and has all the makings of being the next great MAC QB. LeFevour threw for 3,031 yards and 26 TD’s last year while showing his mobility by running for 521 yards and seven more scores. Not only was the offense good, but it was efficient as well. They expect him to throw a bit more, as he has a solid stable of backs behind him to take the running load. Still, he knows what to do when he takes off with the ball.

Ontario Sneed and Notre Dame transfer Justin Hoskins figure to be the top two running backs, and Marcel Archer also figures to be in the mix after seven TD’s last year. Sneed is the number one guy for now, having rushed for 1,829 yards in two years and 12 scores. He’s also a threat as a receiver out of the backfield, with 848 yards and 10 more TD’s. Hoskins is expected to push Sneed for playing time, and Archer will get his share of carries as well. All three backs are very quick, which means our defensive front needs to be on its game or we will get run out of our own stadium.

It doesn’t look any better when you look at the receiving corps. Bryan Anderson is a solid #1 guy with 4.5 40 speed who had 867 receiving yards as a redshirt freshman last year. Last season he was also a first-team All-MAC performer. He is backed up by a stable of guys that is not long on experience, but has plenty of talent.

Central Michigan loves to run a spread offense and will spread the ball around between six or seven guys all day. Overall all their offense will look quite a bit like our own as they also return three lineman, but will have to replace their left tackle as Joe Staley went to the NFL as a first round pick. Drew Mormino was also an All-MAC performer who is now in the Miami Dolphins camp.

Overall this offense has the potential to blow us up if our defense hasn’t taken a big step forward from last season. We cannot afford to get in a shootout with these guys, as the longer they hang around the more confidence they will get on the road. It will be up to our front seven to keep the running game in check, make sure LeFevour doesn’t take off for big gains, and the secondary to hold on against a major test. Our three linebackers are in for a long day as this team can pass and run well.

Central Michigan Defense:

Seven starters return, but this wasn’t a very impressive group last season. In all four losses the Chippewas gave up at least 31 points. The strength of Central Michigan is clearly its offense, and they expect the defense to perform just well enough so the offense can get back on the field and score more points.

Up front the line will look to replace defensive ends Dan Bazuin (2nd round draft pick) and Mike Ogle who both played very well last season, but are gone to graduation. Expect a lot of rotation between four different guys at the end positions, and the defensive tackles to be solid. This is a group that may not generate a lot of pressure, but they won’t break like a snotty kleenax against the run.

The linebackers look to be an underrated group led by Red Keith and Ike Brown. Brown has only one game at outside linebacker because of a knee injury, but he had 12 tackles in a game and a half before being hurt. Keith notched 127 tackles last season to lead the team. They are a very physical group that swarms to the ball, but they don’t pass rush much.

In the secondary three starters return, but they didn’t do much last year when there was a better pass rush. Because of that they aren’t expected to do a whole lot this year either with less of a rush. They didn’t have many interceptions as a unit, and really got torched early on last year. Mediocre is the best way to describe them.

Overall the defense doesn’t sound like much and it will be important for our offense to get rolling at home in what looks to be our final tune-up before the schedule begins to turn. We should be able to mix it up and move the ball well here, and I feel this will be much like the Toledo game in that we will need to control the clock and keep their offense off the field while wearing down their defense. Painter should have all day to throw against a weak pass rush, and as long as he doesn’t throw it into the other team’s hands we should be fine.

Central Michigan Special Teams:

Brett Hartmann is the new kicker, but he is an untested commodity with a big leg. The punting game is very solid after averaging 42 yards per punt last year and 20 punts inside the 20. A big advantage we have is that we were one of the top kickoff coverage teams last year and Central Michigan was horrible at returning kicks. They barely averaged more than five yards per punt return and 18 yards per kick return. With Jared Armstrong as a weapon we can win the field position game and help out our defense immensely.

Their coverage unit wasn’t that great last year either, so it could mean a big return or two from Sheets and Bryant. Anything we can get out of the punt return game will be a plus.

Intangibles:

Central Michigan is breaking in a new coach after Brian Kelly left to take over at Cincinnati this season. Butch Jones is the new coach and has been the architect of the powerful West Virginia offense the last two years. He’ll have games against Kansas and Toledo to get his feet wet before this one, but has a strong enough offense to bring the Chippewas into West Lafayette at 2-0.

While much of the offense is young, it is very experienced after last year and will only get better as the season progresses. They also played in Michigan Stadium last year against the Wolverines and made a game of it for a half before Michigan took over. Since this game has already been announced to be on national TV via ESPN2, the Chips will look to make some noise on a rare national stage. It is the experience this club has that makes them so dangerous. If they open the season with a win at Kansas and a home win against Toledo we had better give them our full attention.

Game Outlook:

This may be the first real test our defense will get. Toledo has the talent to test us in game one, but they have not backed it up with consistent results yet. Eastern Illinois simply shouldn’t be a problem. Central Michigan has produced results on the field and we need to be concerned because of it. We should be coming off of a walkover win against Eastern Illinois, so the defense will likely get some rest by not playing the entire game. They will need it for this game.

Our offense should be able to move the ball against the Chips a bit easier than against Toledo, and it will be important for them to dictate the tempo and control the clock. Our offense isn’t built for that though this game could degenerate into a shootout much like last season’s Miami game. If there are two games that simply scream that we should allow our offense to move the ball and keep the other offense off the field they are this one and Toledo. Will we do so is another question.

The key to this game is not letting them hang around. If we getup early on them and build a big lead we should be able to maintain it. If we let them hang around we will be in trouble. This could be a lot like the Bowling Green game in 2003, where we didn’t put them away until they hung around long enough to beat us. In that game we were the better team, but just let them hang around and hang around until they finally said, "Okay, since you’re going to let us stay close we’re winning this game."

If the defense is playing significantly better than last year, especially the front seven, we will win. If this game becomes a shootout we’ll be in trouble. It should be a good test and not your typical MAC blowout.

Prediction:

I’d feel better picking this game if I had seen us play a game already, but I haven’t yet. Central Michigan honestly scares the bejesus out of me, and I don’t even know what a bejesus is.
If it opened the season I’d feel even more nervous, but this is game three and we’ll have clamed down just enough to handle things well. Purdue 28, Central Michigan 24