Central Michigan's Oliver is excited to play for MAC title in his hometown

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Detroit — Michael Oliver is heading home to try to help Central Michigan win the Mid-American Conference championship game Saturday afternoon at Ford Field.

The Chippewas have made the nation’s biggest turnaround to earn the right to face MAC East champion Miami University in the conference championship game, CMU’s first MAC title game appearance in 10 years.

Central Michigan linebacker Michael Oliver, left, who played at Cass Tech, was a second-team, All-MAC performer this season with 73 tackles.

Oliver was an all-state linebacker while playing for Thomas Wilcher at Detroit Cass Tech and is now trying to make lasting memories in his final games as an inside linebacker for the Chippewas.

Oliver, a 6-foot, 235-pound senior, has experienced the highs and lows of college football, getting in on 68 stops his sophomore year while helping CMU to an 8-4 (6-2 MAC) record before a Famous Idaho Potato Bowl loss to Wyoming, then slumping (31 tackles) during the Chippewas’ 1-11, 0-8 season last year which cost John Bonamego his job as head coach.

Oliver is going out on top. He has enjoyed a strong season which left him with second-team All-MAC honors.

After rival Western Michigan lost its chance to earn the MAC West title with a loss at Northern Illinois Nov. 26, the outcome opened the door for the Chippewas to own the West championship and they did with a 49-7 rout of Toledo last Friday at Kelly/Shorts Stadium, defeating the Rockets for the first time since 2009, which was the last season CMU won the MAC title.

Oliver had a hand in the win, getting in on a team-high eight tackles and 1 1/2 tackles for loss to earn MAC West Division Defensive Player of the Week honors while helping limit Toledo to 83 rushing yards, nearly 160 below its season average.

Even the biggest CMU fans couldn’t have thought the Chippewas would be playing for the MAC championship after last year’s disastrous season. They were picked last in the MAC West preseason poll in voting by media members.

“We came out and set a goal and accomplished it so we’re ecstatic right now,” said Oliver, who has a career-high 73 tackles this season in 12 starts. “It’s been a dream since I signed my letter of intent to come to Central to be able to compete for a championship in my hometown so it’s an amazing feeling and I can’t wait to get after it. It’s nice to be able to play in a familiar area, basically in my backyard so I’m excited to be a part of it.”

CMU’s defense has held its end of the bargain, just like the Chippewas’ offense has gotten things done at a high level.

CMU’s defense ranks No. 22 nationally in stopping the run, giving up just 118.3 yards a game.

Oliver talked of the new culture since Jim McElwain took over as head coach in early December 2018, bringing in former Idaho head coach Robb Akey as defensive coordinator.

“Discipline, focus and the resiliency is the main three key factors,” Oliver said of CMU’s dramatic turnaround. “Everybody came in and the team bought in, so those are the three things that stuck out and those are the three things on now how we kind of play.

“Being here and seeing the transition and just feeling the energy around here, everybody’s excited, everybody loves the energy. There’s a new type of vibe going around Central Michigan right now from students to athletes. Everybody loves to be a Chip. It’s a fun time around the campus right now. The energy is very high.”

McElwain is proud of Oliver for being on pace to get his degree. He also talked highly of true freshman cornerback Kyron McKinnie-Harper, who also played at Cass Tech.

“Kyron has done a good job coming in and playing, kind of thrown in there as a true freshman and he’s done a really good job of helping us in that secondary,” McElwain said. “You’re talking about MJ (Oliver), he’s a real leader on this football team. He’s a guy again who was used to winning at Cass Tech and I think there’s something about that, when guys kind of know what it is to be a winner and what it takes.

“He’s been a great leader for our team. He’s been a guy since the day we stepped in, has really adapted to all the things that we ask of our guys, and more than anything I’m proud of him, he’s going to walk away from here with a degree and I can’t tell you how excited I am about that.”

McKinnie-Harper has 31 tackles and leads the Chippewas in pass break-ups (nine) and forced fumbles (two), showing that bringing him in as one of his first recruits was a key in McElwain being the MAC Coach of the Year, an award he received on Wednesday.

MAC championship

Matchup: West Division champion Central Michigan vs. East Division champion Miami (Ohio)

Kickoff: Noon, Saturday, Dec. 7, Ford Field

TV: ESPN2

Records: Central Michigan 8-4, 6-2 MAC; Miami 7-5, 6-2

david.goricki@detroitnews.com