Another week, another chance for that first win. To get a feel of the Central Michigan Chippewas – Virginia’s opponent this weekend – we chatted with Brandon Folsom, the Sports Editor of the Gaylord Herald Times in Petoskey, Michigan.
A huge thank you to Brandon (@folsombrandonj) for taking the time out to answer our questions.
Game is slated for a 12:30pm kickoff at Scott Stadium.
Streaking the Lawn: Central Michigan comes in 3-0, enjoying success that fans in Charlottesville would lose their minds for. Is this what was expected out of the Chippewas? What is your take on their overall performance so far this season?
Brandon Folsom: This season is the Chippewas' first 3-0 start since 2002. When this was brought up in last week's press conference, CMU coach John Bonamego said, "Holy sh-t, are you serious?" Bonamego has an expectation that his team will compete and do well against each opponent, regardless of conference affiliation or division.
Other than a pair of slow starts in the first halves of the Oklahoma State and UNLV games, CMU is on par with where they should be, and the team is making a serious case to represent the MAC West in the conference championship game at the end of the regular season.
The Chippewas' offense is humming, and they have dynamic playmakers on both sides of the ball. Last week alone, quarterback Cooper Rush threw for six touchdown passes which was a single-game record at Kelly/Shorts Stadium, CMU's home field.
STL: Offensively, QB Cooper Rush has been very solid with 11 touchdown passes and almost 700 yards passing in three games. What will be the biggest key for Virginia slowing him down?
BF: It starts with the trenches. If Virginia can disrupt the play of CMU's offensive line, it can slow down Rush. Through three games, Rush has had clean pockets to pass from which has allowed him to thread precise passes to a talented receiving corp downfield. He also has just enough wheels to escape pressure when the pocket breaks down. That's why UVA must wreak havoc up front and ensure Rush either attempts rushed throws or gets wrapped up in the backfield.
STL: What is CMU's biggest strength defensively?
BF: Bonamego preaches fundamentals on both offense and defense. That means the offensive line will block with proper technique and the defense will make tackles with great form — just like you're taught when you play in little league or Pop Warner football as a kid. That's been a boon for CMU's defense because it has a bunch of sure-handed tacklers. The team can also lay the wood. Safety Tony Annese is one of the biggest hitters in the MAC. Their tackling should trip up UVA on third downs and halt drives altogether with turnovers.
STL: Who are some off-the-radar players Virginia fans should know about on both offense and defense?
BF: Corey Willis is having an outstanding year. He only started one game a year ago, but so far he is tearing it up as a wide receiver. Not only did he score the Hail Mary touchdown at Oklahoma State, he had two more TDs last week that had Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond in awe. He leads the team with four TDs and has almost 200 yards receiving through three games.
Defensive lineman Joe Ostman is back after missing most of last season with an injury (he received a medical redshirt). The junior is one of the best tacklers on the Chippewas and leads the team with 4.0 tackles for loss. His sophomore year, he started all 13 games and was third on CMU with 60 tackles (10.0 for loss). Through three games, he seems to be back on track.
STL: Virginia's defense looked much better last week against a questionable UConn offense. What has been most successful for CMU's offense, and how do you think that matches up with Virginia's defense?
BF: The Chippewas have totaled 1,409 yards of total offense through three games and average 7.0 yards per play. A bulk of that has come in the passing game (950 yards), led by Rush, and CMU is averaging 41 points scored per game. The team scores in bunches, too, and a shaky defense will doom UVA against an efficient offense like CMU's. UVA must come prepared to stop the pass.
STL: The Cavaliers haven't had a pass play over 30 yards this season, partly because of issues keeping the QB protected long enough. How has CMU's front line been, and what should UVA have more success at: running or passing?
BF: CMU's line is arguably the heart of its defense with respect to its stellar secondary. UVA will struggle to run the ball, as CMU has given up only 92 rushing yards per game this season.
Of course, UVA's offense could find success through the air if Annese is unable to play this week. As of Wednesday, he hadn't practiced and the team has him listed as questionable to play. He's the vocal leader and one of the best players in the conference. His loss would be huge for UVA.
STL: What's your prediction for the game?
BF: It's hard to win on the road against a Power 5 school, but it can be done, and I think the Chippewas stave off early yips to pull out an ugly win in the second half, 34-24.