Arrow-right Camera
Subscribe now

Central Michigan to fill in at Sun Bowl and face Washington State on New Year’s Eve

By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

The Sun Bowl was in search of a replacement team. Coincidentally, Central Michigan University’s football squad was nearby and in search of a replacement game.

Central Michigan has agreed to fill in and face Washington State in the Sun Bowl, which kicks off at 9 a.m. Friday in El Paso, Texas.

The bowl game distributed a news release Monday evening announcing the development.

“With the COVID-19 situation around the country affecting Bowl Season, College Football and air travel, another team having issues fielding a team has given life to the 2021 Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl,” the release reads.

The Chippewas, from the Mid-American Conference, were originally slated to meet Boise State on New Year’s Eve in the Arizona Bowl in Tucson, but the Broncos backed out of the game at about noon Monday because of COVID-19 cases among their players.

Less than 24 hours earlier, the Sun Bowl and WSU were left scrambling for a substitute opponent when the University of Miami’s program withdrew from the contest, citing coronavirus-caused roster limitations.

The Sun Bowl Association saw an opportunity after Boise State’s opt-out and moved quickly, working with the MAC and Arizona Bowl to have CMU released from its postseason obligations in the desert, according to Sports Illustrated’s Ross Dellenger.

The Chippewas (8-4) arrived in Tucson on Sunday night. On Thursday, they’ll make the short 300-mile trip east to El Paso down Interstate 10.

Sun Bowl officials had reportedly been phoning several potential replacement teams since Miami announced its decision to withdraw at about 4:30 p.m. PST on Sunday. But the options were slim – most college football programs had already disbanded for winter break.

It became clear Monday morning that it’d be “Central Michigan or bust” for the Cougs in the Sun Bowl, per Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports, who also tweeted that the game “can’t be pushed back a day or two (because) WSU players have flights home.”

“We are grateful for the diligent work of the Sun Bowl Association, the Pac-12 Conference, the Mid-American Conference and Central Michigan University to ensure the 2021 Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl will be played,” Cougars athletic director Pat Chun said, quoted in a news release. Chun also thanked CMU athletic director Amy Folan and Chippewas coach Jim McElwain for “prioritizing the bowl experience for both teams, especially the seniors who will be playing their final college football game.”

The Arizona Bowl reportedly attempted to find a sub for Boise State throughout Monday afternoon. Some speculated that the Cougars might consider taking the Broncos’ spot in Tucson.

But the Sun Bowl carries more prestige and boasts a significantly higher payout. The Arizona Bowl’s plans fell through, and the game became the fourth bowl competition this month to be scrapped because of COVID-19 issues.

The 88th annual Sun Bowl will be broadcast on CBS and reward its competitors approximately $4.55 million total.

The seventh edition of the Arizona Bowl was scheduled to stream on YouTube and Barstool Sports and pay a combined $350,000 to its participants.

It’s just another bizarre twist in a chaotic season for the Cougars (7-5), who spent a couple of hours Monday morning exercising at a local high school – preparing for a faceless opponent and a game they knew might never happen.

“They just want to be together,” WSU coach Jake Dickert said during a post-practice media scrum at Eastwood High. “When I told them this morning that we don’t know what’s going to happen, so let’s go out there and work, they started celebrating. They want to be out here together, and that’s why we’re fighting to hopefully keep this season going.”

The Cougs will try to devour as much film as possible in between training sessions this week. WSU has two practices and a walkthrough remaining before its first matchup in program history with the Chippewas.

“It’ll go back a little bit old-school – just go out there, throw the ball around, play on our rules and principles,” Dickert said. “We’ve seen so many offenses and defenses. You just go play off your base rules.

“Our team just wants to play the game, so we’ll do that in whatever style and however that comes about.”

The Chippewas finished their season second in the MAC’s West Division and fell one loss short of qualifying for the league’s title game. They enter their finale on a hot streak, having won each of the past four games by double digits.

CMU’s strength lies in its offensive backfield, with its redshirt freshman tandem of quarterback Daniel Richardson and running back Lew Nichols III. Nichols, the MAC’s offensive player of the year, leads the FBS in rushing yards (1,710) and all-purpose yards (2,010), and Richardson threw for 23 touchdowns this year against just five picks.

The Chippewa offense ranks 19th nationally in yards per game, amassing about 450 each time out. They have been plagued by poor pass defense, surrendering 266 yards per game (117th nationally).

McElwain, the third-year CMU boss, played quarterback for Eastern Washington in the early 1980s and got his coaching start at the Cheney school, where he served as an assistant from 1985-94.

He secured his first head coaching job at Colorado State in 2012, and posted his first bowl win a year later, when the Rams stormed back from a 22-point second-quarter deficit to stun the Cougars in former coach Mike Leach’s second season. McElwain, who also coached Florida from 2015-17, was hired in 2019 to rebuild a CMU program that compiled a 1-11 record the year before.

Joining him on CMU’s staff is another familiar face to Inland Northwest football fans. The Chippewa defense has employed Robb Akey as its defensive coordinator since 2019. Akey mentored WSU’s defensive linemen from 1999-02 under coach Mike Price and coordinated coach Bill Doba’s defense from 2003-06 before taking the top job at Idaho.

Akey’s son, Daniel, is a student assistant with the Cougars.