Washington State and Central Michigan Meet in Sun Bowl

Washington State and Central Michigan Meet in Sun Bowl
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Washington State and Central Michigan Meet in Sun Bowl

The Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl is one of the handful of bowl games that has been affected by the increasing number of COVID-19 opt-outs and cancellations. The Washington State Cougars were originally scheduled to play the Miami Hurricanes in El Paso. The Cougars arrived on UTEP’s campus on Sunday. The Hurricanes announced that evening that they would not be able to compete due to COVID-19 player unavailability. 

The Barstool Sports Arizona Bowl had similar problems, as Boise State had to opt-out due to health and safety protocols. Their opponent, Central Michigan, was invited by the Sun Bowl to play Washington State as Miami’s replacement. The Chippewas accepted and will play on New Year’s Eve. Washington State and Central Michigan meet in the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl.

At 8-4 on the season, the Chippewas finished second in the MAC West Division. Their head-to-head loss against Northern Illinois kept them out of the MAC Championship game. Washington State finished the season with an upward-trending 7-5 record. The Cougars finished second in the Pac-12 North and were also one game removed from a conference championship appearance. 

Opt-Outs and Roster Updates

Central Michigan will be playing at full strength in the Sun Bowl. They do not have any opt-outs or players on the COVID list. On Washington State’s side of the ball, the most notable absence will be running back Max Borghi. The senior from Arvada, Colorado ended his season on a high note, putting up two touchdowns and north of 130 yards in each of his final two games. Borghi finished the year with 12 touchdowns and 882 yards while averaging 5.5 yards per carry. He was a top five running back in the conference this season, and will forgo the Sun Bowl to enter the NFL Draft.

The Cougars will also be without offensive lineman Cade Beresford. The redshirt junior was a first-year starter this season in Pullman, and finished allowing just one quarterback pressure and an impressive 87.9 overall pass blocking grade according to Pro Football Focus. Beresford will transfer to Boise State next year.

At head coach, Washington State elevated Jake Dickert to the position after his 3-2 record as interim to finish this year. He replaced Nick Rolovich after he was let go mid-way through the season. The day after the thumping of in-state rival Washington, the Cougars gave Dickert the permanent job. He has turned the program in the right direction, and had them in position to win the Pac-12 North this year. 

Air-Raid Cougars

Without Borghi, the Cougar offense will rely on sophomore quarterback Jayden de Laura and the passing game. Washington State has transitioned from Rolovich’s run-and-shoot offense to a more traditional air-raid attack. Mike Leach brought the air-raid to Pullman in 2012, and it has been the root of the Cougar offense ever since. De Laura has thrown for 2,742 yards and 23 touchdowns on the season, while adding three more on the ground. The Cougars have thrown the ball on 60% of all their plays this year, but have had great supplemental production out of the backfield. Without Borghi, de Laura will likely be looking to air it out. 

Out wide, the Cougars have a few pass-catchers who have produced solid numbers this season. Calvin Jackson Jr. is approaching 1,000 reception yards on the year and averages 15 yards per catch. He is second in reception touchdowns with seven to Travell Harris who has nine. Harris has 800 yards and a team high 73 receptions. De’Zhaun Stribling has four touchdown receptions this year, and is another dynamic option for de Laura in the air. Stribling is approaching 500 reception yards this year.

Chippewa Introductions

Offense

Daniel Richardson is the redshirt freshman quarterback who solidified his position as the starter early in the season. Richardson entered the game against Florida International trailing by 17 points. He led a 21-point fourth quarter rally to beat the Panthers by four points. His spot as the starter was secured, and he went on to throw for 2,424 yards and 23 touchdowns on the season. He had three go-to receivers this season who combined for 2,255 yards and 22 touchdowns. Dallas Dixon developed chemistry with Richardson on the scout team in 2019. They continued their success in the air to this season, and were an integral piece to the Chippewa passing attack.

In the backfield, Lew Nichols III gathered 1,707 yards and 15 touchdowns at running back. He averaged 5.5 yards per attempt and put up over 800 yards after contact on the season. Nichols led the country in both rushing attempts and rushing yards, after getting the ball 311 times. His talent is coupled with a solid offensive line. The Chippewas have two of the top five offensive linemen in the country in Bernhard Raimann and Luke Goedeke. Both offensive tackles have a 94+ run blocking rating according to Pro Football Focus. Raimann and Goedeke combined for just one sack allowed on the season. Raimann was named Pro Football Focus MAC Offensive Player of the Year.

Defense

Defensively, Central Michigan has done a great job of preventing conversions on third down. They are 10th nationally in defensive third down percentage, allowing third down conversions just 32% of the time. The Chippewas are also inside the top ten in defensive tackles for loss. They average 7.4 tackles for loss per game this season. Troy Hairston led the team with 13.5 tackles for loss on the season. He also recorded a team-high 6.5 sacks. 

Matchups to Watch

Both of these teams have had success in the air this season. De Laura and Richardson had very similar stats this season, but Central Michigan has a more balanced offensive attack. The Cougar passing defense was above average this year, allowing just 240 passing yards per game. Their rush defense is in the bottom half of the FBS and they allow over 160 yards on the ground per contest and 4.66 yards per carry. They will have a tough challenge against the nation’s top running back in Nichols. 

Central Michigan lacks in passing defense, however. They are 117th in the country in passing yards allowed, giving up 266 yards per game and over 13 yards per attempt. The Cougars have a great chance to capitalize in the passing game. De Laura is averaging eight yards per attempt on the season, but will likely increase those numbers against the Chippewas. The Washington State offense will have their opportunities to move the ball effectively, even without Borghi.

Washington State and Central Michigan Meet in Sun Bowl

In last-minute fashion, Central Michigan got an opportunity to compete in a bowl game despite their original opponent being unavailable. Not only was it a new chance for a postseason win, the Chippewas found themselves in position for a hefty bowl payout. Their original bowl game had a $350,000 payout split between both teams. The Sun Bowl, with its national broadcast on CBS, has a $4.5 million payout split between the programs. The boost in cash is a huge bonus for the Chippewas’ athletic department, and they’ll get a shot at a solid Power Five opponent. 

Washington State is just glad they have a new opponent and a chance to compete in one of the oldest bowl games. They won the Sun Bowl in 2015 against Miami and will be looking for their third bowl win in the last six seasons. For Dickert at head coach, the Sun Bowl is a great opportunity to get ready for next season. They will be using a new running back, and de Laura and the offense will be building for the 2022 season where they will likely be Pac-12 North contenders. On New Year’s Eve, Washington State and Central Michigan meet in the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl.