The Central Michigan football team broke down a lot of walls this season en route to the biggest turnaround in college football.
In Saturday’s New Mexico Bowl, the Chippewas will face the nation’s second-best run defense in San Diego State, just another barrier.
“It’s a big challenge, but I kind of wouldn’t have it any other way for my last game here,” Central Michigan senior center Steve Eipper (Grandville) said. “Everyone thought we might improve one or two games, but we had the best turnaround in college football.”
Central Michigan (8-5) is playing a rather improbable bowl game after four straight bowl appearances prior to last season’s 1-11 season.
Coach Jim McElwain exceeded all expectations in his first year in Mount Pleasant and leads the Chippewas into a 2 p.m. Saturday game at the Dreamstyle Stadium in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
If Eipper and the Chippewas are able to spring running backs Jonathan Ward and Kobe Lewis for a nice afternoon, it’ll be a bit of an anomaly.
A tasty one too.
Eipper said Ward brings food in for the linemen if he has a good game. This would be the last meal together in that context for seniors like Ward, Eppier and graduate transfer quarterback Quinten Dormady.
The defense for San Diego State (9-3) allows just 72.3 yards rushing per game. The season-high for points allowed for the Aztecs is 23.
The Chippewas scored more than 23 points in all eight of their wins and fewer than 23 in all five of their losses.
McElwain took Colorado State to the New Mexico Bowl in 2013, leading his team to a come-from-behind, 48-45 win over Washington State.
“I asked them, ‘Show of hands for guys that could even show where New Mexico was on the map,’ ” McElwain said. “For them to go out and see the mountains and be in a beautiful place, I think it’s great for our team and our kids.”
Missouri was rumored to be interested in McElwain, but hired Eliah Drinkwitz from Appalachian State instead. It remains to be seen if more churn in the coaching carousel links McElwain anywhere else.
For now, the coach unveiled the recruiting class from his first full season and is looking ahead with Central Michigan.
Meanwhile, the Aztecs won six of their last eight games and are making their 10th straight bowl appearance, a school record and a mark that ties for 11th nationally.
Quarterback Ryan Agnew takes care of the ball with only five interceptions this season, but has thrown just 11 touchdowns, compared to 19 for CMU quarterbacks. But Agnew is 14-4 as a starter over his career.
“They’re a pretty straightforward team,” CMU senior defensive back Da’Quaun Jamison said. “They know what they like to do and they don’t change for nobody. They’re kind of, ‘I’m going to come in and do what we do and you’re going to have to stop it,’ kind of team.
“They’re a great football team. They wouldn’t be in a great bowl game if they weren’t.”
The teams visited an elementary school and children’s hospital on Thursday afternoon and then went to a local arcade for pool and other games. Then, the Battle of the Bands was set to take place Friday night.
“I want them to go out and enjoy it, and I want them to enjoy this last game playing together as Chippewas,” McElwain said. “We’re going to go play hard and see what happens come Saturday.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.
New Mexico Bowl
Central Michigan vs. San Diego State
Kickoff: Saturday, 2 p.m., Dreamstyle Stadium, Albuquerque, N.M.
Records: Central Michigan 8-5, San Diego State 9-3
Line: San Diego State by 3