Central Michigan players thinking of those not with them ahead of MAC championship game
Detroit — The Central Michigan football team will play for a MAC championship on Saturday at Ford Field for the first time since 2009.
But on Friday, the final day of preparation for the noon kickoff against Miami (Ohio), much of the focus was on those who won’t be working directly toward an incredible turnaround title in Detroit.
A late voice of the Chippewas, injured on-field contributors and even the proud former coach and alumnus who helped build this version of CMU football were discussed as head coach Jim McElwain and two of those fallen leaders met with the media.
McElwain opened his remarks with a tribute to radio voice Don Chiodo, who died Wednesday in a car crash west of Saginaw.
“He’s a guy that meant so much to so many,” McElwain said.
McElwain, the MAC Coach of the Year whose name is already being rumored in the mix at Missouri and other Power Five programs, brought two players to the dais who won’t be playing Saturday, sophomore linebacker Andrew Ward (Muskegon) and senior offensive lineman Oge Udeogu.
Central Michigan (8-4, 6-2) went from worst to first in the MAC, having gone winless in conference play a year ago, its only win coming against Football Championship Subdivision team Maine.
Enter McElwain, the former Florida head coach who helped Jim Harbaugh’s staff at Michigan last season, who led an incredible rebound in Mount Pleasant.
McElwain found a cupboard not as bare a 1-11 team would indicate.
“I saw a bunch of guys that were out to prove something,” McElwain said. “A bunch of guys that banded together and said, ‘You know what, let’s not let this happen again.’
“I’m really proud to see what they’ve invested in themselves, but more importantly, how they’ve learned to give up themselves for the benefit of someone else.”
One of those guys with something still to prove is senior running back Jonathan Ward, whose one word tweet of "Wow" this week, after it was announced that he was an All-MAC third-team selection despite a 1,056-yard, 15-touchdown season, said it all.
Udeogu broke his arm in CMU's last game, a 49-7 rout of Toledo last week to clinch Saturday’s berth. The right guard and Iowa State graduate transfer was injured as Ward ran toward the goal line as the Chippewas took command.
“It’s been awesome blocking for him, he’s a really explosive player,” said Udeogu, who calls his parents in Nigeria before every game. “If you do your assignment, something can happen with him. You never know and he can just break out like that.”
Perhaps working against Ward in award voting was a loaded offense, led by senior quarterback Quinten Dormady, a Houston transfer who started his career at Tennessee; a backfield mate in Kobe Lewis, who has 953 yards and 11 touchdowns; and a pair of outstanding wide receivers in Kalil Pimpleton and JaCore Sullivan, who have both topped 700 receiving yards.
Like Andrew Ward, Pimpleton and Sullivan are from Muskegon, and picked up their roommate's spirits after Ward suffered a career-ending injury this season.
Ward said the wide receivers were his first Muskegon friends when he moved from Grand Rapids in the first grade. They wore Ward’s jersey for back-to-back games this season.
“That meant a lot to me, kind of keeping my name alive,” Ward said. “It took a couple weeks to just get around the team. Once I was back around, I realized it helped me through my process of swallowing that pill and knowing that my football run was kind of over.”
Ward, a criminal justice major, has since focused on becoming a football coach and juvenile probation officer in Muskegon after graduation.
Ward was brought in as a transfer from Nebraska by former coach John Bonamego, who was fired after last season by his alma mater and returned to his previous job as special teams coordinator with the Lions.
This week, Bonamego told The Detroit News he’s proud of the accomplishments of his former team.
“I guess it's a little bit bittersweet," Bonamego said. "We had a really young team last year and a lot of those kids who played last year as freshmen and sophomores have matured and grown up and learned from their experiences they had a year ago.
"Jim McElwain and his staff have done a fantastic job and you've got to give them credit. You could make a case that ... I guess I'm proud that they didn't take over a situation where the cupboard was bare. A lot of good talent on that team, a lot of homegrown Michigan talent on that team, so yeah, I do take a great deal of pride in that."
Ward added: “He got most of us there. I feel like he played that role of bringing us together and meeting each other.”
Miami (7-5, 6-2) is coached by Chuck Martin, who guided Grand Valley State to two Division II titles in a six-year run that started after Brian Kelly left Allendale for CMU.
Now in his sixth year with Miami, Martin has the RedHawks playing at Ford Field for the first time since 2010, despite having tied for the MAC East title in 2016.
Sideline reporter Adam Jaksa will take Chiodo’s place on CMU's play by play, broadcasting the game with Brock Gutierrez.
Chiodo was the only media representative to vote CMU as MAC West champion in the preseason poll, with many of those whose lives Chiodo touched putting a “1” in parentheses after their names on social media as a tribute.
His chair was left empty at McGuirk Arena on Thursday night at the CMU women’s basketball game.
“He was so gracious and opened his soul up to ours,” university president Bob Davies said. “We are on the biggest stage right now that CMU can be on. It just allows us to express our appreciation for what he has meant for so many individuals.
“It’s important to celebrate each other and keep things in perspective. I think our players and our fans and others have learned from that too.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.
Matchup: West Division champion Central Michigan vs. East Division champion Miami (Ohio)
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Ford Field
Records: Central Michigan 8-4, 6-2 MAC; Miami 7-5, 6-2