Central Michigan coach John Bonamego will look for improved play from quarterback Shane Morris when the Chippewas play at Kansas on Saturday.
Morris, a transfer from Michigan, and the Chippewas avoided a major upset when they defeated Rhode Island, 30-27, in triple-overtime at Kelly/Shorts Stadium on Thursday. Rhode Island finished 2-9 last season, giving up 400 points. The Chippewas outgained Rhode Island by a 499-392 margin, but turned the ball over four times.
Morris was 25-of-49 passing for 226 yards and a TD with an interception in his first start since Sept. 27, 2014. Freshman Tony Poljan also played and was 3-of-5 for 27 yards.
“I thought overall, Shane did a good job distributing the football,” Bonamego said. “He made some plays with his legs. There’s a couple of throws that I’m sure he’d like to have back. Again, he is a fifth-year senior, but this is the first start that he’s had in quite some time, not sure how many starts he’s had in his career (two, in 15 appearances).
“He’s a very intelligent player, very introspective, very coachable young man, and he has got a maturity about him that I really like and he’s good for our football team. He’s competed and he’s done it all within himself, and at the same time it hasn’t been about him, but more about him trying to be accepted by his teammates and fitting into our culture here.”
And before you ask, no, there’s not a quarterback controversy in Mount Pleasant.
“He’s the starter and I mentioned after the game we intend to play Tony, too,” Bonamego said on Monday’s Mid-American Conference coaches’ conference call. “I think Tony Poljan is going to be an excellent player here as he continues to develop and mature.
“Someone asked me after the game why did you pull Shane? No, it wasn’t the case where we pulled Shane, it was a case where we talked about it, planned to play both players. The challenge for us now offensively is trying to figure out when and how we want to insert Tony Poljan into the game plan.”
The Chippewas piled up 246 yards on the ground with Jonathan Ward running for 147 yards on 19 carries and a touchdown, and Devon Spalding picking up 70 yards on 20 carries, including a 4-yard TD run for the difference in the third overtime.
CMU’s defense had six interceptions — two apiece by Amari Coleman and Josh Cox — against Rhode Island.
Its secondary will be seriously challenged by Kansas quarterback Peyton Bender, a transfer from Washington State, who was 23-of-37 for 364 yards and four TDs with two interceptions in a 38-16 victory over Southeast Missouri State.
Steven Sims Jr. is the big-play man for Kansas. He had four receptions for 142 yards and two TDs.
“I think they’re a very much improved team from a year ago,” Bonamego said of Kansas, 2-10 last season. “The quarterback Peyton Bender was very, very efficient, got the ball out of his hands quickly. They have some explosive players. Steven Sims Jr. is about a dynamic player that I think you’ll find anywhere. They spread you out, run and throw the ball effectively. And, they have a defensive tackle in Daniel Wise who has started since he was a freshman, a guy you definitely have to account for.
“We’re going to have to execute at a higher level than we did Thursday night to expect to come out of Lawrence, Kansas, with a win.”
Solid start for Eastern
Eastern Michigan got its season started with a 24-7 victory over Charlotte on Friday night in Ypsilanti.
Now, the Eagles will get the opportunity to knock off a Big Ten team when they play at Rutgers on Saturday. EMU is 0-26 against Big Ten opponents in the last 30 years. Rutgers showed it is could be much improved, losing, 30-14, to No. 8 Washington after a 2-10 season a year ago in Chris Ash’s first year as head coach.
EMU head coach Chris Creighton, who guided the Eagles to their first winning season since 1995 last year, knows the Eagles will have to cut down on their turnovers to beat Rutgers.
Creighton, though, was encouraged by EMU’s defense, which was a major factor in last year’s success when the Eagles limited opponents to an average of 167.5 yards rushing, down from 316.8 the previous year when they were 1-11.
“Our defense intercepted one of their passes (in the opening quarter) and turning it into a touchdown, and we ended up winning the turnover ratio, 3-2, still two more than we would have liked to give up,” Creighton said. “Our defense took the ball away from them three times and held them to seven points, which was the lowest point total for a FBS opponent since 2007, which is what I’ve been told, and kept them under 300 yards, which is good.
‘Our offense, although it wasn’t explosive, took what Charlotte was giving us and our completion percentage (22-of-31) was more like what we want it to be and we played a number of different backs. We had too many penalties and we turned the ball over too many times, but overall it was a solid first start for us.”
Senior quarterback Brogan Roback passed for 267 yards and Shaq Vann rushed for 90 yards, showing he has recovered from a shoulder injury that sidelined him for the majority of the 2016 season. Ian Eriksen had two rushing TDs.
For Rutgers, Kyle Bolin was 24-of-34 passing for 178 yards and two TDs with two interceptions, with 6-foot-1, 235-pound running back Gus Edwards rushing for 79 yards.
On Rutgers, Creighton said: “It’s frightening, which might be the right word when you watch them play against the Washington Huskies at home last Friday night. Rutgers was explosive, strong, fast and violent. They were wound up and looked like they have been pent up for eight or nine months with something to prove. I thought that they looked really, really, really good.”
Western can still hang
Tim Lester recalled his senior year at Western Michigan, when the Broncos opened the 1999 season at The Swamp and cut the deficit to 31-26 in the second half before ultimately falling to Florida, 55-26. When Lester was asked at the beginning of camp if he would be thrilled if the Broncos trailed No. 4 USC by a touchdown in the second half of his head-coaching debut, he replied: “If you can use clock, control the clock and play good defense and get into the fourth quarter close , nything can happen against anybody.”
The defending MAC champions did just that and almost shocked the college football world last Saturday, before coming up short, 49-31.
WMU will get another shot at a Power Five opponent at Michigan State at 3:30 Saturday.
The Broncos actually held leads of 14-7 and 21-14 against USC and pulled within 35-31 with 4:37 left on a 43-yard field goal by Josh Grant, but couldn’t hold the Trojans. Sophomore safety Justin Tranquill, who had eight tackles, failed to pull down Stephen Carr near the line of scrimmage and he escaped to score on a 52-yard TD run with 3:49 left.
Seconds later, Keishawn Watson had the ball go off his hands on a pass from Jon Wassink, making his debut as Western’s starting quarterback, and it was returned 37 yards for a TD.
“We played hard and was happy with our effort,” Lester said. “We ran out of gas late and didn’t finish, but we learned a lot about ourselves and it’s definitely something we can build on.”
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio knows all about Western senior cornerback Darius Phillips, who returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown and had three pass break-ups in the Spartans’ 37-24 victory in Kalamazoo in the 2015 season opener. Phillips showed his big-play ability against USC with an interception late in the first half and a 100-yard TD kickoff return with 7:54 remaining in the game to pull the Broncos even at 28.
“He’s fun to watch,” Lester said. “He’s a great cover guy, did a great job against USC receivers, got a pick. He’s one of those guys that has got himself to a level where I know all of our return team, when they know he’s back there, I mean they’re dialed in.
The Broncos showed off their highly acclaimed running game against USC, rushing for 263 yards, led by LeVante Bellamy’s 102 yards (nine carries). In his starting debut, Wassink was 11-of-22 for 67 yards with an interception and two touchdowns of his own, scoring on a 7-yard run for a 14-7 lead, and hauling in a 27-yard TD pass from Watson for a 21-14 lead.
This week’s MACtion
Central Michigan at Kansas
Kickoff: 4 Saturday, Memorial Stadium, Lawrence, Kan.
Records: Central Michigan 1-0, Kansas 1-0
Eastern Michigan at Rutgers
Kickoff: 3:30 Saturday, High Point Solutions Stadium, Piscataway, N.J.
Records: Eastern Michigan 1-0, Rutgers 0-1
Western Michigan at Michigan State
Kickoff: 3:30 Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
TV/radio: BTN/760, 1130
Records: Western Michigan 0-1, Michigan State 1-0
■Ohio at Purdue, 8 Friday
■Buffalo at Army, noon Saturday
■UAB at Ball State, 3 Saturday
■Howard at Kent State, 3:30 Saturday
■Austin Peay at Miami, 3:30 Saturday
■South Dakota at Bowling Green, 6 Saturday
■Arkansas-Pine Bluff at Akron, 6:30 Saturday
■Toledo at Nevada, 7 Saturday