On the afternoon of Nov. 19, very few saw this kind of ending for the CMU football team.
On that day, the Chippewas sat at 8-2, the best start the team has had in years. They beat their first Big Ten opponent in 16 seasons just a couple weeks earlier. They had not lost a meaningful MAC game in two seasons, and were back-to-back defending champions.
But that night turned out to be the beginning of the downward spiral. CMU uncharacteristically lost a critical home matchup with Ball State. It then uncharacteristically lost the season finale against Eastern Michigan. Last night was the culmination, a 24-21 loss to Florida Atlantic, a team that was good but beatable.
CMU simply looked too uninspired. It had its moments, for sure, and it is not as if the players were not trying to win. They were, just like they always do. But ever since the MAC West title went out its hands, this Chippewas squad just has not played with the same grind-it-out intensity it thrived on to win games this season. It is as if the team cringed when it saw its own blood following the Ball State loss.
In a lot of ways, the Motor City Bowl summed everything up just perfectly. CMU came close. It had one big play - a 72-yard touchdown run by Antonio Brown - but it was called back because of a facemask penalty by Kito Poblah at around FAU's 25-yard line. The CMU defense had stopped FAU on a three-and-out in the third quarter, but a roughing the passer penalty by Larry Knight kept the drive alive. The very next play was a 52-yard touchdown strike that gave the Owls a 17-10 lead.
Had those two penalties gone uncommitted, this game could have turned out a lot differently. But that is how this season has went - down to the wire. CMU could just as easily have lost to Buffalo and Ohio earlier this season because of mistakes by its opponents.
So what's next? Obviously, winter conditioning, recruiting and spring ball. But assuming Ball State quarterback Nate Davis elects to enter the NFL Draft, CMU should enter next season, again, as the Mid-American Conference favorite, mainly because it does not lose as many key players as other teams do. Along with Davis, the Cardinals also lose tight end Darius Hill, defensive back B.J. Hill, wide receiver Louis Johnson and offensive linemen Dan Gerberry and Robert Brewster to graduation. Western Michigan loses receiver Jamarko Simmons and a handful of defensive starters such as Londen Fryar, Louis Delmas and Boston McCornell to graduation. Buffalo, the MAC Champion, does return a lot of key players but not quarterback Drew Willy.
The only starter CMU loses on defense is nose guard Casey Droscha, who spent half the season injured anyway. It loses tailbacks Ontario Sneed and Justin Hoskins, but the team has a surplus of talented running backs who will fight for a starting spot, including Bryan Schroeder, Paris Cotton and redshirt Jahleel Addae. Other key losses include backup quarterback Brian Brunner, wide receiver Joe Bockheim and offensive tackles Andrew Hartline and Greg Wojt. These guys are going to be tough to replace because of their high character, but hopefully this paves way for guys like quarterback Ryan Radcliff, wide receivers Kito Poblah and Jean Pitts, and offensive tackle Jake Olson.
Furthermore, this Central team is going to be hungry come next August. I have a feeling we have yet to see the best of Dan LeFevour, entering his last season. He has all of his best weapons coming back - Bryan Anderson (senior next year), Antonio Brown (junior) and Kito Poblah (junior). The defense should get better with virtually everybody returning and possible high-profile additions in the secondary such as D.J. Scott and Shamari Benton. Obviously, it is going to take work - the Chippewas play both Western and Ball State on the road next season, but does get an improving Northern Illinois team at home. I would not expect two three-game road trips next season, either.