- Scott Walstrom)
MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. – Central Michigan’s 29-19 victory over Northern Illinois on Saturday at Kelly/Shorts Stadium was a lot like the weather: Pretty ugly.
Luckily for the Chippewas, style points count for nothing.
Cooper Rush tossed two touchdown passes and the CMU defense forced four turnovers – all in the second half – as the Chippewas opened Mid-American Conference play with a victory over the defending league champions before a Homecoming crowd of 17,380 on a cold, windy, rainy afternoon.
“I’m just really proud of our team,” said first-year CMU coach John Bonamego, who earned his first MAC win and his first victory over an FBS opponent. “The way we came out in the second half, the defense responded.”
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NIU, 2-3, has won five consecutive MAC West championships.
“We didn’t play well,” Bonamego said. “There was a lot that we’ve got to do much, much better and (the players) know that, they’re aware of that.
“We’ll get back to work tomorrow afternoon. We’ll watch this film and start making corrections. It’s one game, it happened to be against Northern. It was big for us because it was at home and it’s in the conference. Outside of that, they all count the same.”
The CMU defense was led by senior middle linebacker Tim Hamilton, who made a career-high 11 tackles, (all solos), recovered a fumble and made an interception. The Chippewas had forced only four turnovers in their first four games this season.
“The first few games we haven’t been getting enough turnovers,” Hamilton said. “We really made it a big emphasis, especially with the weather.”
“Anytime you lose the turnover battle the way we did, you’re going to have a tough time winning,” said NIU head coach Rod Carey. “Overall, I thought we played good on defense. We ran the ball fine today, not great, but fairly well. The ball was wet and [quarterback] Drew [Hare] struggled with ball-handling. If you give them a -point third quarter and put our defense in some of the situations we did with the short fields, it’s not going to be good.”
The Chippewas roared back in the third quarter when Rush shook off a subpar first half to hit Jesse Kroll for a nine-yard touchdown less than a minute into the third quarter.
The Chippewas started the drive at the Northern Illinois 15-yard line after Tyree Waller recovered quarterback Drew Hare’s fumble.
After an exchange of field goals made it 13-13, CMU went ahead for good, 20-13, when Rush found Kroll for a 23-yard TD pass with 5:27 left in the third. The TD came one play after Hamilton recovered a Hare fumble at the NIU 23.
Hamilton ended NIU’s next possession with an interception at the Huskies’ 31. Three plays later, the Chippewas were in the end zone again, this time on a four-yard run by Jahray Hayes that made it 26-13.
“The momentum really swung our way,” Hamilton said. “We rallied together and realized that we could pull this off. (We said) nothing really special, we were just locking in on our keys and assignments.”
Eavey added a 41-yard field goal in the fourth quarter to extend CMU’s lead to 29-13. A junior former walk-on, Eavey kicked a career-long 44-yarder in the first half and later added a 28-yarder. His three field goals were the most in a single game in his career.
The Chippewas were held to 98 total yards and seven first downs in the first half, and Rush was just 7-for-18 for 61 yards and an interception in the first two quarters.
He finished 16-for-31 for 182 yards, and the Chippewas were able to generate some yards on the ground -- critical in a game in which their fourth-quarter objective was to hold on to the ball and milk the clock.
“You’ve just got to concentrate more with weather like that, (make a ) little bit better throws,” Rush said. “We were out of rhythm; it happens sometimes. Luckily, we were able to get things going, and our defense picked it up and we were able to capitalize.
“To be able to win ugly, I guess that’s what good teams do.”
Hayes, a junior who transferred to CMU from City College of San Francisco, finished with 88 yards on 29 carries in just his fourth game as Chippewa.
“I just knew I had to go in there and step it up,” said Hayes, whose previous high for carries was 12 two weeks ago at Syracuse. “We lost a good running back. I knew I had to go out there and do it for my team.
“It was pretty cold, so I just tried to stay warm the best I could, I had the jacket on, moving around on the sidelines. That was the coldest game — I’m from California. The scary thing is, I know it’s going get worse. I made sure that I had two hands on the ball.”
NIU's Hare finished the day completing 12 of 28 passes for 105 yards. Joel Bouagnon carried 26 times for 104 yards, while Hare added a net of 65 more with 27 carries as the Huskies totaled 211 yards with two TDs with their ground game. Kenny Golladay's six catches and 54 yards paced NIU receivers.
(Courtesy of CMU/NIU Athletics)