The Washington State Cougars face the Central Michigan Chippewas in the 2021 Sun Bowl on Friday morning (9 am PT, CBS), This wasn’t the matchup that anyone expected, but it came to fruition after Miami pulled out of the game due to COVID-19 issues. The same happened to Central Michigan’s bowl opponent, Boise State, and so now the Cougs and Chippewas will be playing football against each other for the first time ever.
The Cougs are listed as 7-point Sun Bowl favorites on DraftKings.* Let’s look at the key players and trends that will impact WSU vs. CMU.
When Central Michigan has the ball...
Central Michigan head coach Jim McElwain’s offense runs more than it passes on the balance, spearheaded by running back Lew Nicholls III. The third-year freshman has carried the ball nearly 26 times a game and accounts for 37% of all plays for CMU. He has amassed 1710 yards at 5.5 yards per carry, scoring 15 rushing touchdowns along the way. Nichols also has 38 catches for 300 yards and has even completed three passes for 41 yards—he will be a massive focus in the Sun Bowl
Despite the load for Nichols, Central Michigan isn’t as run-heavy as some other teams Washington State has faced this season, such as Oregon State or BYU. The Chippewas are just about average nationally in early-down rush rate, handing the ball off 53% of the time on first and second down (via @statsowar). CMU’s running game overall is just average when judged by points per play added (PPA), a metric from collegefootballdata.com—it ranks just 55th in rushing PPA.
WSU has struggled to defend the run—the Cougs are 99th in rushing PPA allowed. However, they are 41st in rushing explosiveness allowed. So while they give up a high number of successful run plays, they don’t let too many of those plays go for big gains.
Alongside Nichols in the backfield will be another third-year freshman—Daniel Richardson, who took the starting quarterback job from former Washington Husky Jacob Sirmon this season. Richardson has completed 61% of his passes for 8.4 yards per attempt, with 23 touchdowns against five interceptions. His efforts have helped guide the Chippewas to an effective passing attack that sits at 31st in passing PPA.
Pass defense has been WSU’s strength—the Cougs are 48th in passing PPA allowed. However, that was with star cornerback Jaylen Watson holding down one of the corner spots. He won’t be playing in the Sun Bowl.
One interesting note on CMU’s passing attack—there have been eight passing attempts by non-QB Chippewas this season. In a bowl game especially, expect to see a running back or wide receiver throw the ball at some point.
CMU’s blend of solid passing and bruising running has made it successful on 51% of standard (non-passing) downs, good for 39th nationally. The Cougs have been abysmal in allowing successful plays on standard downs—120th overall. However, while the Cougs are letting teams stay ahead of the chains, they don’t give up big plays when those plays are successful. WSU is 11th in standard down explosiveness allowed.
The Chippewas could chew some clock in this game, but WSU is banking on eventually making big plays and stopping drives. CMU allows havoc—passes defenses, fumbles, interceptions, and tackles for loss—at an above-average rate. However, WSU hasn’t been consistently good at generating havoc—it typically relies on passing downs to do that.
The Cougs are just above average in passing down success rate allowed—49th, while CMU is successful on passing downs at the 50th best rate. If WSU can limit explosives and exploit the occasional incomplete pass or short run, those passing downs will tell the story of the game.
Central Michigan will likely move the ball, it comes down to if that results in touchdowns or something less. CMU has struggled in finishing drives, ranking 80th in points per opportunity, scoring 3.8 points per trip inside the 40. WSU has allowed 3.9 points per opportunity.
When Washington State has the ball...
WSU will be without several of its best offensive players in the Sun Bowl. Running backs Max Borghi and Deon McIntosh are not in El Paso and both starting tackles—Abe Lucas and Liam Ryan—will be sitting out the game. That puts a lot of pressure on Coug quarterback Jayden de Laura to make plays.
The Cougs have been an above-average running team—ranking 48th in PPA on rushing plays. However, with the top two backs out that is likely to take a hit. Nakia Watson will likely get the vast majority of playing time at running back. He’s carried just 19 times this season, almost all in situations where WSU was well ahead and trying to burn the clock.
The good news for Watson is that CMU’s rush defense isn’t stout, just about average, ranking 61st in rushing PPA allowed.
The better news for de Laura is that the Chippewas are 86th in PPA allowed on passing plays. The Cougs are 71st on offense, but it’s always important to note that there are about two full games with Jarret Guarantano and Victor Gabalis at the helm baked into the overall passing numbers. WSU’s passing game has been much better when de Laura is starting and healthy.
The Cougars have played with fire much of the season by saving themselves on passing downs—they are 27th in passing down success rate. Extending drives on third-and-long may be tough against the Chippewas, who clearly have made passing downs an emphasis. CMU is 37th in passing down success rate while ranking 86th in standard down success rate.
Central Michigan’s defense is led by defensive coordinator Robb Akey, who held the same position at WSU from 2003 to 2006. Akey’s WSU defenses were known for emphasis on havoc—and CMU ranks second nationally in havoc rate. The Cougs have allowed havoc plays at an above-average rate, but as the season has gone on, two key elements of havoc—sacks and interceptions—have diminished considerably.
Can WSU continue that trend without its two tackles? That will be important—Akey’s defense will bring pressure and hope to force de Laura into mistakes. The flipside will be if de Laura and his receivers can punish that aggressiveness by creating big plays—the Chippewas rank 101st in explosiveness allowed.
Finally, the Cougs have been the better team when it comes to finishing opportunities—ranking 39th in points per opportunity while CMU’s defense is 76th in points per opportunity allowed. If the Cougs can avoid mistakes and consistently move into CMU territory, they are better at finishing drives with touchdowns.
The Bottom Line
There are a lot of questions for WSU on both sides of the ball, so this game is hard to predict. How will Jaylen Watson’s absence impact the pass defense? Will CMU exploit WSU’s missing offensive lineman for big plays? Can Nakia Watson effectively fill some big shoes in the running game?
With all those questions as the caveat to this analysis, the keys to the game will be WSU’s ability to finish its drives and avoid major mistakes on offense—and avoiding Akey’s signature demonstrative celebrations on the sideline. On defense, the Cougs will likely bend, but limiting explosive plays and forcing Central Michigan to grind out drives will be key to slowing the Chippewas down.
Special teams may also play a role—Central Michigan has three return touchdowns this year. WSU should be looking to kick away from returners to avoid a game-changing touchdown in what is likely to be a close contest.
*Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.