MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. - Even Brian Kelly might have been surprised eight weeks ago to know these words would be coming from his mouth.
"I think Toledo and Central Michigan both have had early success based on the ability to run the football," Kelly, the CMU coach, said earlier this week.
Not that there's anything wrong with running the football.
It's just that CMU's top two running backs from last season, one of them an all-conference selection after averaging 116.7 yards per game, are both awaiting trial on second-degree murder, among other charges, stemming from a beating death outside of a local bar in June, 2004.
Jerry Seymour, the all-league pick, and Spencer Lewis are among five current or former Chippewa football players charged with offenses related to the incident.
"We made it a focal point to just play football, that the off-field problems would be handled off the field," said CMU quarterback Kent Smith, who graduated from Start High School.
The Chips have indeed managed to stay focused and take a 3-1 record in Mid-American Conference play into today's game here against 4-0 Toledo.
CMU has also managed to keep running the ball.
True freshman Ontario Sneed has stepped into the void and has rushed for 726 yards, an average of 103.7 yards per game. Smith, of course, is also a running threat and has produced 262 net yards.
"Sneed has come through in a huge way after losing Seymour and Lewis," Smith said. "He's matured so fast for a true freshman. I can't say enough about him."
In a league that has received much notice for quarterbacks in recent years, the best teams continue to have potent rushing attacks.
"That national publicity for [MAC] quarterbacks has been fueled by past success and has continued with [Bowling Green's] Omar Jacobs and [Toledo's] Bruce Gradkowski," said CMU's Kelly. "But in terms of production on the field, we wouldn't be in position to have a shot without Sneed. And Toledo is 6-1 because of [its] running backs. Trinity Dawson leads the way, but they're all very good."
Dawson, who joins Sneed among the nation's top 20 rushers, is averaging 102.9 yards per game and has strung together three straight 100-yard efforts for the Rockets.
Quinton Broussard, Richard Davis, Jalen Parmele, and Gradkowski all have chipped in with 100-plus yards on the ground, giving UT a per-game rushing average of 231.3 yards to CMU's 165-yard production.
"We're not the WAC [Western Athletic Conference] with 50 passes a game, regardless of how good our quarterbacks are," Kelly said.
"In the Midwest, with the [weather] conditions we face, you have to run the football."
Today's forecast is for mild temperatures and dry conditions, so both teams should be versatile in their offensive approaches as they wrestle for control of the MAC West Division race.
"We call every MAC game a championship game because you have to win the early ones to make the ones down the road bigger," said UT coach Tom Amstutz.
"This is definitely the biggest. Central is 3-1 and is a legitimate contender. [The Chips] are on their home field and they're coming off a bye week, so they've had extra time to prepare. Anything could happen. It should be a great match-up."
The Toledo-CMU tilt is the MAC's TV game of the week and will be available in the Toledo area on Fox Sports Net Ohio.
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