We finally made it, Big Blue Nation. The long offseason has reached the end of the tunnel as the toe will meet the leather on Saturday afternoon at the artist formerly known as Commonwealth Stadium. Your Wildcats are now in year six under Mark Stoops and appear to have their most talented roster since Andre’ Woodson and the Cats were breaking records over a decade ago.
For those of you that checked out our preview series, you’ve consumed everything there is to know about the Wildcats. We’ve gone over roster, two-deep depth charts, and how the coaching staff could strategize both the offense and defense. Now it’s time to be like Lil Wayne and ‘show me my opponent”.
In what has been a common occurrence in non-conference home games, UK will be playing a team from the MAC to begin the season. However, this one is no sleeper as the Chips have made four consecutive bowl appearances and will be looking to know off a Power Five opponent for the third time under their head coach.
Nuts and Bolts
John Bonamego enters year four at his alma mater after they found themselves in a bit of a bind when Dan Enos strangely left the program in January of 2015. The longtime NFL special teams coordinator immediately made the Chips very competent as they have been to the postseason all three seasons and have been in the mix for the divisional crown every year.
As a program, CMU had the best run of its history from 2006-2009. Under head coaches Brian Kelly and Butch Jones, the Chips won three MAC championships as well as recording the first bowl victory in program history. This is a team that can win MAC titles when the right leadership is in place.
For the 2018 season, it is expected to be a rebuild in Bonamego’s fourth season. The Chips have received very good quarterback play from Cooper Rush (now with the Dallas Cowboys) and Michigan grad transfer Shane Morris. Those two are now gone and a new quarterback is in.
On defense, CMU has a chance to be the best unit in the MAC if the secondary can find the right pieces. The front seven has experience and talent that will give UK’s offensive line and new quarterback Terry Wilson some challenges.
This will be the seventh meeting between these two programs and Kentucky currently holds a 6-0 series lead. The most recent contest occurred in 2011 as Kentucky picked up a 27-13 victory behind 126 rushing yards from true freshman Josh Clemons. In 2006, Rich Brooks got the best of Brian Kelly as Andre’ Woodson outlasted Dan LeFevour in a 40-34 shootout.
Out in the desert, Kentucky is a 17-point favorite with the total sitting at 49.5 as Vegas is projecting around a 33-16 win for the boys in blue. Under Bonamego, CMU is 7-3 against the spread as a road dog with two straight up wins. Under Mark Stoops, UK is 2-1 as a double-digit favorite against MAC competition and 2-3 against the spread in home openers.
Last year, former division II head coach Chris Ostrowsky took over the offense and had the Chips humming. In the his first season, CMU went to a no huddle attack that liked to mix in tempo. S&P+ ranked this as the 45th fastest offense in the country as the Chips would really put their foot on the gas after first downs. The scheme is filled with RPOs and quick decisions made by the quarterback.
Last season, the Chips put up 28.5 points per game which was the highest mark for the program since 2009. CMU lived off of big plays as they recorded 37 passes over 25+ yards which ranked 11th in the country. When they couldn’t find big plays through the air is where they got in trouble.
CMU ranked 122nd in success rate as they constantly found themselves in third and longs. The offensive line struggled to create running room as the Chips averaged just 3.8 yards per carry.
In 2018, the offense will live and die with junior running back Jonathan Ward. The Illinois native emerged as a star in 2017 as he rushed for 1,017 yards and hauled 48 receptions. He has UK’s full attention going into Saturday and he will be deployed all over the place. Look for him in the slot and out wide as Ostrowsky will use him as a glorified wideout in addition to his running duties.
Expect him to get around 30 touches on Saturday. He is a home run threat.
Tony Poljan will step in at quarterback and he is a behemoth. The 6-foot-7, 235-pound athlete from Lansing, Michigan was recruited by some Big Ten schools as an athlete out of high school. As a situational quarterback and receiver last season, he recorded 125 rushing yards, 78 passing yards, and 97 receiving yards. Kentucky needs to be ready to see a fair dose of QB power. He’s a jumbo athlete.
At wideout, Central Michigan only returns 19 receptions from last year and seven came from Poljan.
Brandon Childress was knocked out of the lineup for the year early in 2017 and he will be Poljan’s top target. He recorded 23 grabs and 327 yards as a freshman in 2016. In a reserve role, tight end Logan Hessbrook had 10 receptions and he figures to be a heavy part of this passing game.
On the line, CMU’s starters collectively average 281 pounds as only left guard Shakir Carr is over three bills. Under Bonamego, this is a position group that has struggled as they’ve consistently not been good at creating running room. In the offense, because of the quick releases, the pass protection has been satisfactory.
Greg Colby returns for his fourth season as the defensive coordinator and the 2018 unit has a chance to be his best group yet with pretty much the entire front seven back on campus.
It starts with middle linebacker Malik Fountain who is the rock of the defense in this 4-3 scheme. The Chicago native has started since he was a true freshman and received All-MAC honors as both a sophomore and a junior. For his career, Fountain has notched 248 career tackles and has started in all 39 games. He’s a football player.
There are other front seven weapons such as defensive linemen Nathan Brisson-Fast, Mike Danna, and Mitch Stanitzek. The three combined for 13 sacks and 10 non-sack tackles for loss last year as they will present a unique challenge to UK’s offensive line. At Sam linebacker, Alex Briones is perhaps the biggest playmaker on the team as he collected three interceptions, three sacks, and 5.5 non-sack tackles for loss in his first year as a starter.
In the secondary, the Chips have some major questions for new secondary coach Cory Hall to answer. It starts with Sean Bunting who is a ballhawk. The junior has collected seven interceptions to go along with 10 pass break-ups in two years. Kentucky must be smart in how they challenge him.
After that there are some significant questions. Central Michigan will be starting two redshirt freshmen at safety and an Oregon State transfer at the other corner. This could be an area Eddie Gran decides to attack.
Special Teams Breakdown
Outside of kick returner Jerod Davis, this was a group that struggled at nearly everything. Michael Armstrong is totally unreliable on field goals past 40 yards. Punter Jack Sheldon averaged over 40 yards per attempt but suffered from bad hangtime that left the door open for some big returns.
There will be hidden yardage there for the taking.
Those of you following the practice reports have heard his name mentioned numerous times in the last few weeks. Most certainly you heard what he had to say about Benny Snell earlier this week. But the fact of the matter is that Jonathan Ward is a stud and could be the best double threat back UK faces this fall.
After rushing for just 200 yards as a freshman, Ward bursted onto the scene as a sophomore as he collected 13 total touchdowns. There were only a handful of running backs that caught more balls than Ward last season and you can expect CMU to use him in a lot of creative ways to help protect a new quarterback, a shuffled around offensive line, and very green receivers.
Kentucky is going to get a heavy dose of Ward and they are going to have to prove that they are flexible enough to stop the big playmaker in multiple ways.
Keys to Victory
Kentucky enters this contest as the more talented, experienced, and athletic team. They are a heavy double-digit favorite and matchup well with the Chips. However, CMU presents some legitimate challenges that UK must be ready for.
- Last year the Chips struggled to stop the run as they ranked 114th in run defense per S&P+ as three opponents rushed for more than 300 yards. Going up against an experienced front seven, it will be important for UK’s offensive line and tight ends to impose their will early. Get the chains moving and open up the passing lanes for some easy throws for Terry Wilson in his first start.
- On offense, CMU was was one of the most least efficient attacks in the country last year as they lived and died off big plays. The Chips were consistently in third and longs. For UK, they must make that trend continue into 2018. Get stops early and let a talented UK pass rush can take advantage of an inexperienced quarterback.
- Similar to UK, CMU was dead in the water last season when they lost the turnover battle. In such situations, they were 0-4 with an overall margin on minus-13. When breaking even or winning, the Chips were 8-1 with a plus-13 margin. On the other side, UK was 5-1 when winning the turnover margin. UK must protect the football and get CMU in some third and longs to produce potential gamebreaking plays.
- UK has had their fair share of success in one-possession games, but CMU may be more comfortable in a game that becomes a grinder in the fourth quarter. Under John Bonamego, the Chips are 11-6 in one-possession games including a 4-0 mark last season. With unknown parts in the kicking game in addition to facing opponent who has had success against Power Five programs, it won’t be wise for UK to let CMU hang around.
Ever heard of a cardboard boat race? Me neither. But apparently this is a thing in Mount Pleasant.
Every year for homecoming, students will meet at a pond on campus and race to help build school spirit and survival skills for if they’re ever stranded in the wild with just a body of water, cardboard, and duct tape.
Last year was the 20th annual running and it brought out a record 40 teams to participate. The best time ever recorded was in 2010 at four minutes and 58 seconds. This is an elite tradition.
If you’re tailgating at Kroger Field on Saturday and you hear some CMU supporters yelling something about fire do not panic and look for the closest extinguisher. CMU’s top chant is simply “Fire Up Chips” and I believe they yell this about any time they get a chance. Be prepared.