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Playing Nice: Central Michigan

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Previewing the Chippewas with Hustle Belt’s James Juney

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 04 Central Michigan at Missouri Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After an ugly loss against UCLA and a so-so performance against McNeese State, the 2021 LSU football team gets one last tune up before the gauntlet that is SEC play begins next Saturday against Mississippi State.

The tune up comes in the form of the Central Michigan Chippewas led by former Florida head coach Jim McElwain. SB Nation covers #MACtion better than anybody and here to break down Central Michigan is Jim Juney, creative director over at Hustle Belt. Give him a follow on Twitter @AVKingJames.

1. Two weeks ago Central Michigan rolled into CoMo and scared the bejeezus out of Missouri but ultimately came up short against the Tigers. How confident are you that they can do it again this week?

Same name, same result would certainly be a very cool result for me, a Chippewa alum and fan. We have to understand the CMU performance vs. Mizzou in context. Jim McElwain was not on the sidelines, putting Tim Skipper in charge in his first-ever head coaching appearance. The team had also lost talisman RB Kobe Lewis to an ACL tear in the last practice before CMU headed to Columbia, suddenly leaving them with question marks there. Combine that with a surprise transfer from expected starter at right tackle in Derek Smith, and yeah, there was cause for concern. (This was even before knowing who the quarterback was, as the depth chart had three starters listed.)

Despite all that, the Chippewas established themselves as a team not to be trifled with in the early going, really attacking the Tigers defense early and forcing them on their heels in scripted play. It was after that where things started to get murky, and that’s really where McElwain’s presence was missed, as CMU seemed to be more concerned with getting Jacob Sirmon back into game shape than keeping continued charges down the field at points. The two interceptions were especially frustrating in that respect, as were the six sacks allowed in the second half with the game still very much in reach. (It should also be noted that four of Mizzou’s scoring drives were directly aided by defensive penalties in a game where pass interference was called extremely tight.)

From an outside perspective, LSU really seems to be in the mud a little bit, suffering a bad loss to a UCLA team that showed up much more prepared, and struggling to get in gear vs. McNeese State. There’s also that issue with the running back getting academically suspended, which (again, from an outside perspective) screams to many a total lack of organization. These things typically go one of two ways: either LSU comes out screaming and it’s a blowout, as should be expected when an SEC team faces a MAC team, or LSU feels entitled to a free win, plays at half-pace and is suddenly watching as a team they expected to beat gets one over on them.

I think CMU is a disciplined enough team to be able to keep LSU honest, at the very least, and I don’t think LSU should underestimate them. CMU has traditionally played Power Five opponents tough in recent years.

2. LSU’s fIrst-year defensive coordinator Daronte Jones got his lunch money taken in week 1 by Chip Kelly, do you expect the much more experienced Jim McElwain to have the advantage in the playcalling department?

We have to address the big elephant in the room; this is Coach Mac’s re-introduction to the SEC after his getting jettisoned at Florida. In many fans’ minds down South, he’s probably still that blowhard who consistently underperformed in Gainesville, or just another Saban disciple that was successful because Alabama is successful. (Even though he won two SEC East titles in his first two seasons, but I digress.) He’ll be eager to prove that he’s a good coach on his own merits.

If there’s one thing Coach Mac loves, it’s manipulating the defenses with colorful play design, and I think that he’ll have many shots to do that this Saturday. Coach Mac has expressed regret to local media about missing the Mizzou game, saying CMU more or less gave it away, and that it haunted him to have to watch that. It makes me think that he had some unique game plans he hoped to execute against them which he was unable to dust off due to surgery for appendicitis. CMU spent last Saturday vs. Robert Morris working on concepts and game situations that were weaknesses against Mizzou in Week 1, while taking care not to show too much of a potential Game 3 plan.

If Chip Kelly had his way with Daronte Jones, McElwain should have similar— though not identical— success.

3. LSU has struggled offensively thanks in no small part to its offensive line. Do the Chippewas have the personnel up front to give the offensive line issues?

Their defensive line depth is positively scary. DE Troy Hairston was the 2020 MAC co-defensive player of the year in a transition year from OLB, proving to be an effective pass-rusher with a league-leading 5.5 sacks and 12 tackles-for-loss in six games to go along with 22 tackles. He’s joined by transfer DE Thomas Incoom, who had 9.5 sacks, 12.5 tackles-for-loss, a team-leading four fumbles, two pass breakups and 33 tackles in 11 games with Valdosta State in the 2020 season on the opposite side. 2019 starter LaQuan Johnson (six sacks, 13 tackles-for-loss in 13 games) is also back after tearing his ACL in the first quarter of COVID football action, while 2020 starter Amir Siqqiq, a former linebacker a la Hairston, also provides speed at the end position.

The defensive tackles aren’t anything to shake a stick at either, with Jacques Bristol and Tico Brown being two of the better run-plugging defensive tackles in the MAC. The DL has a lot of contributors who have shown themselves in rotation, including Austin Peay transfer John Wesley Whiteside (28 tackles, two sacks, 4.5 tackles-for-loss in 2020), Buffalo transfer Tyrece Woods (10 tackles, two sacks, three tackles-for-loss) and true freshman Jason Williams for.

CMU’s linebackers are also pretty competitive, with converted safety and two-time first-team all-MAC linebacker Troy Brown (42 tackles, 4.5 sacks, eight tackles-for-loss, three pass break-ups and a fumble in 2020) and George Douglas (team-leading 45 tackles, one sack, two tackles-for-loss, one interception) being one of the MAC’s best tandems.

Giving an SEC offensive line issues could be a bit too far of a line I’m willing to cross, but I’m confident they’ll irritate LSU at the very least.

They held their own against Mizzou, and dominated Robert Morris, so I don’t see why they can’t compete with LSU.

4. Let’s flip it around. Does CMU have the offensive line to keep a deep, talented LSU defensive line at bay?

If there’s something for LSU fans to take solace in, there’s a weakness in the CMU offensive line on passing downs, especially in the interior. The Tigers sent the house in the second half down the middle and picked up eight sacks on the day, with Mizzou LB Blaze Alldredge especially getting behind his assignment for 3.5 sacks and six tackles for loss. Even in the Robert Morris game, they still gave up a sack and a good handful of tackles-for-loss to a team who was otherwise waxed in every department.

When it comes to run-blocking, however, it’s a whole different ballgame. This unit loves getting physical and pushing their assignments forward, proving themselves one of the Top 25 units in the country over the last two seasons. The depth chart is relatively young, with the majority being sophomores or juniors, but they’re all excellent contributors with size to boot, with only two of their top 10 prospects standing under six-foot-four, 305 lbs. (Coincidentally, those two players are the starting center and guard in the interior I mentioned earlier.)

One player to keep your eye on in both phases (but especially in the run game) is LT Bernhard Raimann, a former tight end convert from Austria. He’s one of Bruce Feldman’s College Freaks of 2021, and has a lot of bend and brute strength to his game that’s extremely attractive to watch if you’re a fan of line play. He was a first-team all-MAC offensive lineman in his first year at the position in his third total year of playing organized American football, and is being coached by the same offensive line coach responsible for Eric Fisher’s development from a late-round prospect to #1 overall draft pick.

5. I think we’re both in agreement LSU should beat Central Michigan aha ha,just kidding...unless? But seriously, if Central Michigan were to pull the upset, how would it happen?

Ball control, ball control, ball control.

The recipe to any good upset is to hold on to the ball for as long as possible, and to finish drives with as many points as possible. It simultaneously allows you to score points while keeping your opponent off the field. If you have a great rushing offense— and Central does have a stable of four running backs they have complete trust in— and can limit the other team’s attack (a question still to be answered for Central), they should be in position to make the Tigers sweat.

Jacob Sirmon, the Washington transfer, has a fantastic arm which still needs a few game reps to pinpoint, and there’s two big-threat receivers on the outside in JaCorey Sullivan and Kalil Pimpleton that LSU’s defense will have to account for, but the key to success for CMU will be on the ground. Both Lew Nichols III and Darius Bracy found green grass against Mizzou, while Marion Lukes proved an efficient dual-threat option when needed. If CMU can clean up Sirmon’s reads, and the running backs can continue to find holes to squeeze through, they’ll set themselves up for a potential upset.