EL PASO, Texas – The Central Michigan Chippewas, replacing a Covid-stricken University of Miami team that was forced to pull out of the annual Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl, made the most of their opportunity after holding on to defeat Washington State, 24-21, during the 88th edition of the game in El Paso.
The Chippewas began the week not knowing if they would even play a game after their original bowl game, the Arizona Bowl in Tucson, was canceled, also due to Covid complications, this time to Boise State.
But with the Cougars in need of an opponent, Central Michigan (9-4) made the 300-mile bus ride from Tucson to El Paso one day before gameday, got off to a 21-0 halftime lead, and then held on after a Washington State (7-6) second-half rally to win their first bowl game since 2012 and break a five-game bowl losing streak.
In doing so, the Chippewas also finished the season on a five-game winning streak after their first appearance at a Sun Bowl. The Cougars, on the other hand, suffered their first Sun Bowl defeat after winning the game during their first two appearances (2001, 2015).
Central Michigan outgained Washington State, 339 yards to 231, including logging in 149 yards on the ground. Lew Nichols III, the game’s C.M. Hendricks MVP, led the Chippewas ground charge with 109 yards rushing on 19 carries.
Daniel Richardson led the Central Michigan passing attack, finishing 14-of-27 for 175 yards and an interception. Victor Gabalis, who came in at the beginning of the second half for the Cougars, led a dramatic comeback after throwing for a couple of touchdowns and finishing with 168 passing yards.
Although, it was Washington State who seemed to be coming off a long bus ride the day before, as starting quarterback Jayden de Laura and the Cougar offense could not get anything going during the first half, especially during third downs. Washington State could only convert one of 15 third-down attempts and were also 1-of-4 on fourth down.
Central Michigan began the scoring on their third possession, a little more than halfway through the first quarter. A big 38-yard run by Nichols III helped set up a 49-yard field goal by Marshal Meeder.
Meeder followed up his long field goal with a Chippewas bowl record 52-yarder on CMU’s next possession to give the Chippewas a 6-0 lead. Meeder would be named the John H. Folmer Special Teams MVP after the game.
Central Michigan immediately got the ball back after Washington State fumbled the ensuing kickoff. Kumehnnu Gwilly jumped on the ball, giving the Chippewas the ball at the Cougar 23-yard line, and three plays later Nichols III scored from one yard out to give Central Michigan a 13-0 lead after one quater of play.
A couple of possessions later Washington State tried to get back in the game with a couple of big plays. A 38-yard pass play from De Laura to senior Calvin Jackson Jr. was followed by a 40-yard run down the right side by Nakia Watson to get the Cougars inside the red zone.
Unfortunately for WSU, a bobbled snap nullified a 30-yard field goal, and the Cougars first scoring opportunity. It was one of few opportunities for the Washington State, as they would see five of their eight first-half possessions end in 3-and-outs.
The Chippewas, on the other hand, capitalized on their opportunities and took their commanding halftime lead after Richardson hit wideout Kalil Pimpleton for a 15-yard touchdown with under two minutes remaining in the half. Pimpleton had also set up the drive nicely with a 45-yard punt return.
Central Michigan seemed to try and put the game away early in the third quarter as during its first possession of the half they drove down to the Cougar 5-yard line. But a Nichols III fumble and recovery by Washington State’s Jahad Woods gave the Cougars some life.
The Chippewas also had an interception, missed field goal and blocked field goal during the second half, keeping Washington State in the game.
The Cougars finally got on the board after an eight-play, 74-yard drive that culminated with a Travell Harris five-yard touchdown run out of the wildcat formation. The big play of the drive was a 55-yard pass play from Gabalis to wide receiver Lincoln Victor. The drive was also aided by a roughing the passer penalty during a fourth down pass attempt which was not completed.
After a Richardson interception on the very next play, Gabalis found freshman De’Zhaun Stribling on a fourth down, five-yard touchdown pass to cut the Chippewa lead to 21-14 near the end of the third quarter.
Washington State’s fourth-down magic did not last, however, as the Cougars turned the ball over on downs during their next two possessions. One of those possessions led to a short field for Central Michigan and the Chippewas capitalized with another Meeder field goal.
With just over three minutes left in the game, Washington State cut the lead to a field goal after a 16-yard touchdown pass from Gabalis to Victor making the score 24-21.
The Cougar defense also did its job as it forced a three-and-out during Central Michigan’s next possession to give Washington State a shot at tying or winning the game. But a fourth-down pass from Gabalis to Joey Hobert came up inches short to thwart the Cougar comeback.
This was the first appearance and victory in the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl while the nine victories marks CMU’s highest win total since the 2009 team finished 12-2. CMU won eight games in 2017 and again in 2019.
“What a great win. First of all, I just want to kick this off by saying thank you to the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl for giving us an opportunity to come play a ball game. I want to thank the Arizona Bowl and Barstool Sports. They went out of their way to give us a great week down in Tucson and even after the cancellation of the game, they treated us like there was a game That tells you what a class act Barstool is and what a class act the bowl is as well. I’m just proud of these guys, proud of our team. We don’t get opportunities to play power five teams very often and to get a win – especially in a bowl game as historic as this one – I’m just really proud of our guys. On a personal note, I wish I could play the ‘Cougs’ every bowl game, I think this is the second one we’ve won against them, so I’d be alright with that. That team [Washington State], what they went through there in Pullman this year, nobody should have to go through something like that. For them to get to a bowl game and do the things they did, my hat is off to their administration, their coaching staff and their players for hanging together. At the end of the day, I’m proud of these Chippewas. I’m really happy for our fans and our administration – I found out that it’s been since 2012 that we’ve even won a bowl game. So hats off to these guys.”
FINAL SCORE: Central Michigan 24, Washington State 21
C.M. Hendricks MVP: Lew Nichols III (Central Michigan – RB)
Jimmy Rogers Jr. Most Valuable Lineman: Ron Stone Jr. (Washington State – DE)
John Folmer Special Teams MVP: Marshall Meeder (Central Michigan – K)
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