An unforgettable turnaround: CMU finishes as MAC champion

NCAA Football

MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. (WOOD) — The closing minutes on the regular season were coming to an end, and the Central Michigan football team had a 42-point lead on Toledo.

Behind the maroon and gold dressed bodies standing on the sideline, seniors Jonathan Ward and Michael Oliver grabbed a cooler full of ice-cold water. The two ducked and weaved through their teammates in a crouch to avoid being seen by their head coach, Jim McElwain.

Finally, they were within striking distance of the first-year leader. They lifted their arms and unleashed the water and showered McElwain. It was 32 degrees at the time, but McElwain couldn’t stop smiling, although he was cold.

“I’ll tell you what, I need a hot shower,” he said afterward.

No matter how cold he was, nothing could stop McElwain from being proud. Why?

His team is the biggest turnaround in all of NCAA Division I college football.

The Chippewas destroyed Toledo 49-7 to win its first outright Mid-American Conference West title since 2009 and punched a ticket to Ford Field for the MAC Championship game. This all comes after the worst season in school history, where CMU finished 1-11.

“I’ve got one sign in my office that says ‘dead last,’” McElwain said with a shrug. “Well, okay, if that’s what people think of ya, go out and prove them different.”

The Chippewas did just that, and they did it with an absolute slaughter of the Rockets, a team CMU hasn’t defeated since 2009.

On the first drive after an illegal hands to the face call against the Rockets and another CMU first down, Dormady dropped back to pass on first down just past the 50-yard line. He made his reads over the middle, finding a slanting Tyrone Scott who had beat his defender by multiple steps. Dormady delivered a strike right at his target.

Easy money.

CMU was rolling and ahead 7-0 without barely breaking a sweat. Toledo continued to move down the field on CMU, but for the second time in a row, it stalled with a sack from Robi Stuart.

CMU’s offense came back on the field and just kept pouring it on. Muskegon native Kalil Pimpleton had a 32-yard rush that was just a yard short of the goal line. Quarterback Tommy Lazzaro came in for a read option rush and scored untouched from a yard out.

Speed, preparation and a heck of a lot of confidence from the get-go —a team that was 1-11 a season ago was playing like it was supposed to be playing for a MAC title.

Even when no one thought it could. Yet here they were, giving the Rockets a gut-punch it couldn’t counter.

On CMU’s third offensive drive, it scored again. After getting down the field and being forced to attempt a field goal, Toledo jumped offsides, giving CMU another first down. A play later, Lazzaro rushed in again untouched for an 8-yard touchdown.

This one was already coming undone, and there was still over 12 minutes to play in the first half. One drive later, CMU drove half the field and capped it off with Jonathan Ward’s 15th score of 2019.

The Chippewas breezed to the locker room with a 35-7 advantage. Dormady was 11-of-14 for 171 yards and a score, doing whatever he wanted against the Rockets. Ward led all rushers for 59 yards and a score, with his team totaling 152 ground yards in 30 minutes.

Wheel routes, curls and quick-hit screens to go along with a rushing attack averaging 6.1 yards per carry opened up the downfield passing game. Over and over again it worked, and Dormady didn’t miss his targets waiting with open arms. It continued for the rest of the game as CMU scored to open the second half.

For Ward, it had been a while since he has seen an offensive group clicking like this.

“Not since high school,” Ward said. “This is by far the best-balanced team I have been on in my college career. We had a lot of great passers, but maybe the rushing game wasn’t up to par that year or we had good rushing years but the rushing game wasn’t up to par. This year we have balance. I feel we are very dynamic.”

A season ago, CMU lost to the Rockets 51-13 to cap off the program’s worst season in school history. Just over a year later, CMU gave a drubbing to the Rockets and coasted into a MAC West title.

And now, at the right time of the year, CMU is sprinting to Ford Field.

“This has been the most fun year of college football I have had for sure, there is no doubt about it,” Dormady said. “It’s a special group in the locker room, I’ll continue to say that for years to come. I’m happy for the guys that were here and endured what they did. To bounce back is special.”

In one season alone, Jim McElwain and his staff turned CMU from a team that finished No. 129 out of 130 in all of football to a championship unit. This team is playing for more than it has in 10 years next Saturday at noon against Miami (OH).

It surely didn’t happen overnight, but in just one season, this team has developed a winning culture once again in Mount Pleasant.

“This has nothing to do with me at all,” McElwain said. “It has to do with a group of coaches that got together and these players that invested in themselves. I’m just happy to be along for the ride. It’s fun to see them grow.”

This ride isn’t over for McElwain and his team. They still have a championship game for the conference and a bowl game to go. What will occur during those games is uncertain.

One thing that is for sure though, more wins will bring more ice showers for the man in charge of this team.

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