MT. PLEASANT, Mich. — Two weeks ago in Oxford, Ohio, strides were made.
The football team put 28 points on the board.
That’s four touchdowns.
Four more than they delivered in the previous two games combined. The first four for a redshirt freshman quarterback Chester Stewart-led offense.
So, entering last Saturday’s game with Central Michigan, the two-time defending Mid-American Conference champions, things were expected to carry over. Especially considering the porous state of the Chippewa defense, which yielded an average of 30.6 points per game and 405.8 yards per game entering the contest.
But things didn’t exactly work out.
The Owls could only muster one solid scoring drive, falling 24-14 to the Chippewas and falling into fifth place in the MAC East Division.
The key to the game was turnovers, as Stewart threw three interceptions and sophomore running back Marquise Liverpool fumbled the ball off a screen pass.
The third interception, one that was forced into coverage by Stewart, was truly costly for the Cherry and White.
The following play, Central Michigan senior quarterback Brian Brunner hit junior wide receiver Bryan Anderson for a 37-yard score, putting the Chippewas up by two possessions and effectively putting the game out of reach for the Owls.
“We had three interceptions on the day,” coach Al Golden said. “Those three were killer right there because they give Central [Michigan] a short field. [It’s] disappointing that we got careless with the football.”
But those three picks, combined with Stewart’s 15-for-32 for 163 yards and one touchdown effort, didn’t deter Golden from believing in his young signal caller.
“Overall, [Stewart] was doing well, and then he just panicked a couple of times,” Golden said. “I know there’s some throws out there he’d want back, [and] we’ll continue to work on that with him. I think it’s evident that he is very talented, we just got to get him settled down.”
However, Stewart himself was none too pleased with his own performance.
“[I] left a lot on the field,” he said. “A lot of tipped passes ended up being turnovers, so I don’t know. [I] missed a lot of plays, so overall I don’t think I did that well.”
In fact, when asked if he blamed himself for the loss, Stewart agreed.
“Yea, I think…I would,” he said. “My turnovers could have been points, could have led to points.”
Yet, despite the young struggles of Stewart, Golden instead focused on another miscue: penalties.
While the Cherry and White were only flagged five times for 31 yards, they came at real inopportune times of the game.
Central to that was a holding call on senior center Alex Derenthal, which negated a 32-yard run by freshman cornerback Kee-ayre Griffin.
Two plays later, Stewart threw his third interception of the contest.
“Our biggest issue right now is these penalties,” Golden said. “What’s happening with the penalties is they’re coming at really bad times, really poor times in the game. So, we got to get it corrected.”
But, for Griffin, who finished with 84 yards on 12 carries and one touchdown, it was another impressive performance.
Practicing for just the second week as a running back, the speedy East Orange, N.J., product once again turned heads and caught the eyes of the coaching staff.
“You only get one opportunity once in a lifetime,” Griffin said. “So I’m going to take it, I’m going ride it out to the fullest, and I’m going to do whatever the coach and team want me to do.”
That opportunity has come at the cost of redshirt freshman Joe Jones, who finished with just eight carries for 20 yards in the contest.
Jones, who is fine with splitting carries with Griffin, wasn’t all that happy with his play.
“[Griffin] did good today, but I didn’t perform like I should have,” Jones said. “[There] were a few plays where I should have hit it and went, where I got tackled, things like that.”
Jones’ evaluation of his play paled in comparison to Griffin’s, who was quite pleased with his performance.
“Once I get on the field, I’m going to be explosive,” Griffin said.
Yet, through it all, the Owls now stand at 2-5 overall and 1-3 in the MAC, which shouldn’t have anyone in Cherry and White smiling.
But, that record still hasn’t affected the team’s confidence.
“We definitely feel like we still have momentum,” said junior defensive end Junior Galette, who posted three sacks and nine tackles last Saturday. “Why? That’s who we are, we’re just flipping the switch every week no matter what goes wrong. All we need is two acres and a ball.”
Kicking and Screaming
While the Owls have problems just getting the ball up the field, those problems don’t even compare to what’s going on in the kicking game.
After redshirt junior Jake Brownell missed two short field goals against Western Michigan on Sept. 27, he was benched in favor of senior Anthony Perlozzo.
But Perlozzo missed his lone field goal attempt against Miami (Ohio) on Oct. 4, so after a week-long battle, Golden went back to Brownell last Saturday.
The result: not good. Not good at all.
Brownell missed an extra point in the second quarter, then missed a 45-yard field goal that never got as high as the crossbar.
Needless to say, Golden wasn’t really happy.
“Well, it’s not good, our field goal kicking is not good right now,” the Owls’ third-year coach said. “We need them to step up and start making some kicks. It’s really hard in the [redzone] to call the game because it’s not an automatic three points. We’ve got to get to that point where we know inside the [redzone] it’s three [points].”
“We need someone to step up and take the job,” he added.
After suffering a shoulder injury on Sept. 20 against then-No. 14 Penn State, it looked like redshirt senior quarterback Adam DiMichele’s season and collegiate career might have ended at Beaver Stadium.
But progress has been made, as he dressed for the game last Saturday. It’s now looking more and more like the Owls’ undisputed leader will return to the lineup for next Tuesday’s game against Ohio.
“I think he’s closer,” Golden said of DiMichele. “His knowledge of the game is excellent, so he helps us on the sideline, but we also dressed him just to get [him] the feel of [the game]. He threw some balls in warm-up. He can’t throw it very far yet, but he’s closer.”
Golden was also quick to point out that DiMichele still has plenty of work to do.
“We got a long way to go,” he said. “We’re shutting him down right now at about a 15-yard [pass], so we’ve got a long way to go before he can throw the ball.”
On the other side of the DiMichele coin is Stewart, who would shift back to a reserve role if DiMichele can return to the lineup.
And Stewart is perfectly willing to comply with that.
“It’s [DiMichele’s] team first, so I’m expecting him to come back strong,” Stewart said. “I’m prepared to be a backup once he’s healthy.”
Todd Orodenker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.