Central Michigan had just four days to prepare for their new bowl game opponent. After making the five hour drive from Tucson to El Paso the day before the game, the Chippewas had to have their home jerseys over-nighted to Texas to contrast Washington State’s whites. Behind the physical running attack of the Chippewa offense, Central Michigan took a dominant lead into halftime. However, several Chippewa miscues and strong play from the Cougar offense led Washington State back into the game. The momentum swing wouldn’t be enough, however, as Central Michigan upsets the Cougars with a 24-21 Sun Bowl victory.
Cougar First Half Blunder
Washington State entered the Sun Bowl without their first and second string running backs. Max Borghi declared for the NFL draft and Deon McIntosh did not make the trip with the team, leaving third-string Nakia Watson as the starter. He struggled all day behind an offensive line with limited experience. Watson would finish the game with 62 rushing yards on 17 attempts.
Up front, right tackle Abe Lucas opted-out to prepare for the NFL, and Liam Ryan underwent postseason surgery following the regular season. Guard Cade Beresford transferred following the season as well. This left three first-time starters protecting Watson and quarterback Jayden de Laura. The lack of experience showed, as the offense only gathered 53 total yards of offense in the first half, including -36 yards in sacks. The Cougars had just two plays of more than 10 yards in the first half and they came on back-to-back snaps. That drive ended with a fumbled snap on a field goal attempt.
Central Michigan’s defense gave Washington State limited opportunities for success. In the first half alone, the Cougars had seven punts to just three first downs. The Chippewas forced nine punts on the day and started their drives at their own 41 yard line on average. Their longest scoring drive of the day was just 51 yards. Central Michigan was able to take advantage of short fields in the first half, and took a commanding 21-0 lead into the locker room.
Chippewa Miscues and Momentum Shift
De Laura did not come out of the locker room following halftime due to an undisclosed lower body injury. Victor Gabalis took over in the second half and came out slow. However, Central Michigan began to make some mistakes that allowed the Cougars back into the game. It started with a Chippewa fumble near the goal line. After a 60 yard drive to the Washington State four yard line, they put the ball on the ground. Although the Cougars punted on the ensuing possession, it gave the defense confidence into the third quarter. Central Michigan got the ball with good field position but were held to just 18 yards on the drive where they ultimately missed a 36 yard field goal.
Washington State would capitalize on the missed opportunity. They drove the field and faced a critical fourth down inside the red zone. On the play, Gabalis missed his receiver but took a late hit that was called roughing the passer. The penalty was a critical Chippewa mistake and gave the Cougars new life. Travell Harris took the wildcat formation snap into the end zone on the following play.
After the ensuing kickoff, Central Michigan made another critical mistake. Daniel Richardson threw an interception on the first play of the drive. This gave the Cougars the ball in plus territory at the 23 yard line. They moved to the five yard line due to an unsportsmanlike penalty on a Chippewa defender. Washington State ended up scoring on fourth down. The touchdown made the Sun Bowl a seven point contest and brought all new life to the Cougars.
MVP Lew Nichols
The momentum the Cougars would find late in the third quarter was mitigated as Central Michigan regathered themselves. Running back Lew Nichols was able to keep pounding it on the ground and help give the Chippewas some more points. After Washington State’s second touchdown, the Chippewas took over needing to put something together offensively. Nichols caught a short pass and took it 36 yards into the Cougar red zone. His explosiveness after the catch swung the game back into the hands of Central Michigan. They capitalized with a 43-yard field goal to make it a 10 point lead in the fourth quarter.
Nichols finished the game with 176 total yards and a touchdown. He averaged nearly five yards per rush, and made a big play in the pass game out of the backfield. Nichols was awarded the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl MVP for his game changing performance in El Paso.
Cougars Find Late Opportunity
With under five minutes to play, Washington State started its drive down 10 points. On the first play, Gabalis found Donovan Ollie down the sideline for 56 yards to set the Cougars up deep in opponent territory. A few plays later, Gabalis hit Lincoln Victor for a 13-yard touchdown. The score cut the lead to three points and the Cougars were back in it. They forced a punt on the ensuing Chippewa possession and had the ball with a chance to go down the field and win it.
Central Michigan held them to fourth down where the Cougars came within inches of continuing their drive. Victor caught the ball on fourth and five, but was ruled inches short of the line to gain. The play was reviewed, and Washington State came up a couple chain links short of an opportunity to win the game. Central Michigan took over and put the game away.
Central Michigan Upsets Cougars for Sun Bowl Victory
The Chippewa victory in El Paso was the MAC’s third bowl season win this year out of eight games. Last-minute preparations for the Cougar air-raid proved to outmatch their opponent, as Central Michigan upset the Cougars with a Sun Bowl victory over a solid Pac-12 team. The win was the MAC’s only victory over a Power Five opponent this postseason, and gives Jim McElwain his ninth win. The nine wins are the most for the program since the 2009 season. They also got their first bowl victory since 2012 where they won the Little Caesar’s Bowl. This Chippewa program is on the rise with the young talent they have in Nichols and Richardson. Look out for Central Michigan to make a run at a MAC championship next season.
Main Image courtesy: Gaby Velasquez/ EL PASO TIMES