Tuesday night MACtion continues with Ohio traveling to Mount Pleasant to take on Central Michigan in a critical game for both teams in terms of bowl positioning and the chase for the conference championship. With a win over the Chippewas, coach Frank Solich’s Bobcats will clinch the MAC East and book a trip to Detroit for the league title game in early December. Central Michigan needs one more win to get bowl eligible and has two shots remaining, starting on Tuesday night with Ohio visiting Kelly/Shorts Stadium and a trip to Ypsilanti to take on rival Eastern Michigan on tap next week.
After a promising 3-0 start – including a surprise win over Oklahoma State – Central Michigan has been trending in the wrong direction. The Chippewas are just 2-5 over their last seven games and enter Tuesday night with a three-game losing streak. Pinpointing the reason for Central Michigan’s struggles isn’t simple, as coach John Bonamego’s team ranks sixth in the MAC in scoring defense, seventh in total offense and fourth in total defense. However, a deeper look at the numbers shows the Chippewas are struggling to get a push on the ground (3.9 ypc) and haven't provided enough protection for quarterback Cooper Rush (32 sacks allowed).
Ohio enters Tuesday night’s game with momentum on its side, as the Bobcats have won three in a row, including a 31-26 road victory against Toledo. Solich’s team has been a model of consistency in the MAC, recording seven bowl appearances since 2006 and posting at least six wins in every year since 2009. Additionally, Ohio has only two losing seasons since 2005. If the Bobcats fail to clinch the division on Tuesday night, they will have one more opportunity with Akron visiting Peden Stadium next week.
Central Michigan holds a commanding 23-5-2 series edge against Ohio. The Chippewas have won six out of the last seven meetings in this series. The Bobcats’ last win against Central Michigan was in 2011.
Ohio at Central Michigan
Kickoff: Tuesday, Nov. 15 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Ohio -1
Three Things to Watch
1. Ohio’s Defensive Line Against Central Michigan’s Offensive Line
While most of the focus is going to be on the two quarterbacks, the outcome of this game is likely to be decided in the trenches. Central Michigan’s offensive line has struggled this season and ranks 11th in the MAC with 32 sacks allowed. Additionally, the Chippewas are struggling to generate a ground game (128.6 ypg). Ohio’s defense is one of the best in the MAC, with the strength of this unit residing in the front seven. The Bobcats lead the conference in rushing defense (114.8 ypg) and rank first in sacks (36). End Tarell Basham (11.5 tackles for a loss) is the headliner for Solich, with linebackers Blair Brown (89 tackles), Quentin Poling (78 stops) and Chad Moore (70 tackles) rounding out a strong front seven. No MAC opponent has managed more than 27 points against Ohio’s defense this season and this unit is holding conference opponents to just 5.1 yards per play. Can the Chippewas provide adequate protection for quarterback Cooper Rush? Or will the Bobcats win the battle up front, consistently put pressure on Rush and place Central Michigan’s offense into long-yardage situations?
2. Central Michigan QB Cooper Rush
Central Michigan’s Cooper Rush entered 2016 as one of the MAC’s top quarterbacks and is closing in on the conference record for most career passing yards. Rush has passed for 12,119 yards over the last four years and needs just under 800 yards (786) to pass former Chippewa Dan LeFevour for the No. 1 spot in the MAC record book. While Rush isn’t having nearly the statistical season he posted last year, the senior has still passed for 2,775 yards and 21 scores. However, his completion percentage has dropped from 66.3 (2015) to 59.6 in 2016. As mentioned above, a shaky offensive line has a lot to do with Rush’s drop in production, and the passing game also suffered a setback with the season-ending knee injury to standout receiver Jesse Kroll. Rush doesn’t need any motivation, but two factors are in play for Tuesday night. This is his final game in Kelly/Shorts Stadium and bowl eligibility is at stake. After two uneven performances against Kent State and Miami (Ohio), can Rush carry this team to a win on Tuesday night? The Bobcats are strong in the front seven, but the secondary ranks seventh in the MAC in pass efficiency defense. If running back Devon Spalding is able to return from injury, the ground game should have more punch. And if Rush has time to throw, a receiving corps that features Corey Willis (53 catches), Mark Chapman (14.9 ypc) and tight end Tyler Conklin (35 grabs) should have opportunities to test the Ohio secondary.
3. Ohio’s Offense
With a standout defense in place, Ohio doesn’t necessarily need a huge performance from its offense to win on Tuesday night. However, this group seems to be finding a spark behind quarterback Quinton Maxwell. The redshirt freshman is 3-0 since taking over for Greg Windham as the team’s starter, guiding the offense to an average of at least six yards per play in each of his starts. Maxwell has passed for 870 yards and seven scores, while posting a 59.6 completion mark. Additionally, he hasn’t tossed an interception in each of Ohio’s last two games. Injuries hit the Bobcats’ offense hard throughout the year, as leading rushers Dorian Brown (656 yards) and Maleek Irons (372) have both missed time, and standout running back A.J. Ouellette was lost for the year due to injury. Receiver Sebastian Smith (16.6 ypc) is making a strong push for All-MAC honors, while running back Papi White, receiver Jordan Reid and tight end Troy Mangen provide a few other options for Maxwell.
After passing road tests against Kent State and Toledo, how will Maxwell perform against Central Michigan with the division title hanging in the balance? The defense certainly hasn’t been a major problem for the Chippewas. This unit ranks sixth in the MAC against the run, limits opponents to 5.5 yards per play and holds opposing offenses to 29.3 points a game. A deeper look at the numbers shows this defense has struggled to get off the field on third downs (40.8 conversion rate for offenses) and has only 14 sacks through 10 games. Can Maxwell deliver another steady performance on the road? Or will Central Michigan’s defense stuff the run and force the young quarterback to win this one with his arm?
Both teams have plenty at stake on Tuesday night. Ohio can clinch the MAC East with a win, while a victory by Central Michigan would put this team at six wins and in a good spot for a bowl game. The Chippewas have the edge at quarterback and the homefield advantage on their side. However, Ohio’s defense has the ability to control the game in the trenches, and Maxwell seems to be improving with each snap. One other factor that could swing this game: Turnovers. The Bobcats are second in the MAC with a plus-nine margin, while the Chippewas are eighth at minus-six. Against a standout defense, that’s a bad recipe for Central Michigan. Ohio clinches the MAC East, while the Chippewas have to wait a week to secure bowl eligibility.