October 16, 2012

Five Keys: CMU hosts Ball State in must-win

While Halloween is still a few weeks away, things are already frightening in Mount Pleasant. That's because the Central Michigan football team recently had a chance to even their record at 3-3 overall with a win over a struggling Navy team, and this opportunity was all available on the national stage with a primetime game on ESPN2. Instead? The Chippewas looked eerily inefficient and played arguably their worst game of the season, culminating in the late game benching of senior QB Ryan Radcliff.

But all is not lost in Chippewa Country (no pun intended). Navy was a game many experts tabbed as a loss before the season started, and the loss was not a conference loss. This week a new door of opportunity opens up as CMU hosts Ball State for their annual Homecoming game. The Cardinals come in at 4-3 overall and are fresh off a 30-24 overtime win against Western Michigan. Ironically enough, it was Ball State in 2010 that officially signaled the Chippewas transition to rebuilding when they came into Kelly/Shorts Stadium and defeated CMU 31-17 behind 303 yards rushing. Like that game in 2010, this one will go a long way towards defining the season, as a loss to the Cardinals would be crippling. With that in mind, we take a look at the 5 Keys heading into this Saturday's game.

1) Slow Down the Ball State Rushing Attack

While that is a very caveman-esque goal description, it could not be more important. The last four weeks CMU has given up these rushing totals: 215 (Iowa), 407 (NIU), 183 (Toledo) and 238 (Navy). It doesn't take a second glance to realize that is not good, and certainly not any way you win football games. Ball State ranks No. 5 in the MAC in rushing yards per game at 195, while CMU ranks No. 10 in rush defense with an average of 234.7. Coincidentally, of the bottom seven teams in rush defense in the MAC, one (1) has a winning record, and that would be Ball State. But for CMU to win this game, they are going to need to limit the damage on the ground and make some plays in the backfield, as teams have had success chipping away at the defense all year. 175 yards should be the key number, lower and I expect CMU to win, higher and it will be tough to get a win.

2) Will the Real Ryan Radcliff Please Stand Up

It's his third year as a starter, and still nobody has any idea what type of performance CMU is in for at QB on Saturday. The Iowa game looked to be career defining at the time, as he showed remarkable poise and led CMU to the biggest win since 2009. He even followed that up with some good performances in losses to NIU and Toledo, but then last week he looked completely shell shocked. It is never a good thing when a Navy QB outplays you, and even when worse when said QB is a true freshman, but that is exactly what happened last Friday night. But for all the criticism he has taken, he has had a pretty good year. For the season he has 10 TD's and 6 INT's, with a 58% completion percentage. As a passer, he sits directly in the middle of the pack of MAC quarterbacks, but his real problem has been out of his control, and that would be constantly playing from behind. For the season he has attempted 50 out of 198 passes when CMU is leading, which is a terrible position to be in. But when a team loses, everyone points their gaze at the QB, and he will need to be the good Radcliff for CMU to win on Saturday.

3) Pressure the QB

Another basic principle, it is also a major key. In the rare situations when CMU has been able to consistently defend the run during games, it simply opened the door for teams to exploit them through the air. One of the most deceiving stats in the MAC is CMU's No. 2 ranked pass defense, and that is attributable to their first six opponents emphasis on rushing. Teams have been able to run the ball, and have usually had the lead, making the passing game more of a secondary option. If this game becomes a shootout like I expect it to, CMU will need to generate some sort of a pass rush. They have only seven sacks all season, and no player has more than one. Whether it is by blitzing or a standard four man rush, CMU will need to at least get pressure and not let Keith Wenning and Ball State pick them apart.

4) Trust in Tipton

Since taking over as head coach, Dan Enos has constantly lamented about his multiple offense and the need to be balanced. In the past he simply has not had the backs to pound away at defenses, but this year has been different. JR Zurlon Tipton has been very good for CMU and has averaged an impressive 6.0 yards per carry to go along with 6 touchdowns. SO Anthony Garland is averaging 4.5 YPC and FR Saylor Lavallii is averaging 3.4 YPC. While rotating backs and keeping guys fresh is always nice (Tipton has had between 11 and 17 carries in every game), Tipton has proven to be a big play back who consistently gets positive yardage, and if the mantra is give the ball to you hot back, then Tipton should receive 20+ carries.

5) Play Like Your Back is Against the Wall

And CMU should, because simply put, they are. I may have overused the must-win phrase, but this is as close to a must-win as you can get. A loss would be crippling, sending CMU to 2-5 overall and an insurmountable 0-3 in MAC play. Win and suddenly the goal of making a bowl game looks possible. CMU should come out gunning, and it would be refreshing to see them embrace their high powered pass offense for a few opening drives and let Radcliff settle in through his comfortable shotgun formation. Getting an early lead should be the No. 1 goal, as the playbook can be opened up and the running game established to run time off the clock. Defensively CMU should be aggressive and try to create mistakes, as they can't afford to continue to bend for short gains up and down the field. But above all, they must play like this is the biggest game of their careers, and it will be interesting to see if this team rises up or wilts in the moment.

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