Photo by Colin Salata | centralmichigan.rivals.com
Amari Coleman didn't dress Saturday.
The star cornerback for Central Michigan (3-3, 1-1) was padless, donning school colored sweatpants and his gold No. 7 jersey. Coleman did walk with the fellow captains for the coin toss at Peden Stadium before CMU's conference road opener against Ohio, his only appearance on the field.
Coleman has recorded two interceptions in the previous five games started.
"Amari is a great player, one of the best in this league," said senior defensive end Joe Ostman. "But that's part of the game. You lose your great players–scout team player–you never know who's going to go down."
The Flint, Michigan, native had not missed a game during his time with the Chippewas since freshman year back in 2014, appearing in all 12 regular season games the past two years.
What was seen as a crucial absence turned into players taking full advantage of the opportunity, including junior Da'Quaun Jamison, who made his first ever career start.
With or without Coleman, this game was seen as a must-win for the Chippewas, who were arriving into Athens on a three-game losing streak. Last week, the Bobcats scored 58 points in a win over UMass, tied with Toledo for the best record in the Mid-American Conference at 4-1.
But history was on CMU's side, having just one loss to the MAC East foe over the course of 16 years. Add the return of senior tight end Tyler Conklin and prosperity was looming.
Conklin, who broke his foot at the beginning of fall camp last month, made his 2017 debut and finished with career-highs in catches (10) and yards (136), grabbing both of quarterback Shane Morris' touchdown passes in the 26-23 win.
The Northwood University transfer had his outing begin with three straight receptions during CMU's opening drive of the quarter, ending with a 16-yard touchdown to tie the score at seven.
"It's nice to be back," Conklin said. "Missing the first five games of your senior year is tough and at the same time, not really knowing if you're going to come back because of the injury, especially with the timeline sped up and coming up sooner than when I was supposed to."
Senior wide receiver Corey Willis also made his return after being out since the Kansas game with a broken wrist. He didn't catch a pass, but his presence alone provided optimism moving forward.
"It's good to have number eight out there next to me, I love playing with Corey," Conklin said. "He attracts so much attention it made the game easier for me."
Ohio, averaging nearly 42 points a game this season before Saturday, had its lowest total since a week two loss to Purdue. The team led until three minutes into the third quarter when Central Michigan running back Jonathan Ward scored his only touchdown from one-yard out.
Ward and four other CMU rushers combined for 68 yards on the ground, averaging 2.2 yards a carry. Ward, the sophomore, finished with five yards on seven attempts.
Morris was 25-of-35 passing for 249 yards and two touchdowns, throwing an interception late in the first quarter for his ninth this season, which leads the conference.
Redshirt freshman Tony Poljan saw time at both quarterback and wide receiver, primarily used as a blocker and rusher, in which he had a long of 12 yards.
The second touchdown by Conklin in the third quarter came after Ohio quarterback Nathan Rourke committed his third fumble and fourth turnover in total.
"There's no silver bullets out there," said CMU head coach John Bonamego. "You just have to stick to what you believe in, recommit yourself, play attention to details and work hard."
Rourke recorded 160 yards passing and 105 yards on the ground, scoring all three of the Bobcats' touchdowns with his feet, including the go-ahead 14-7 lead with 4:18 left in the second quarter on a 14-yard run.
OU had 350 yards of total offense, 30 yards more than CMU, and were 10-of-15 on third down conversions.
“(Rourke) is a very elusive player," Ostman said. "He’s not down until the whistle’s blown. I found that out for myself. (Ohio) runs that option (and) he's a dual threat. You don’t know where they’re going. It brought a challenge, but we prepared for it all week and I think we responded pretty well.”
Ostman was credited with two forced fumbles, also grabbing seven tackles and a sack. Senior safety Josh Cox came up with his fourth interception this season, which leads the Chippewas, in the third quarter.
Jox returned it 45 yards, setting up a targeting call on Ohio that made it first and six for Central Michigan, but were unable to capitalize and turned it over on downs.
Both teams were 3-of-4 on red zone scoring.
"I try to play with that desperation feeling every game," Ostman said. "Our backs were against the wall so we had to respond."
Central Michigan ended the first half down 14-13, when a blocked field goal attempt was picked up by sophomore cornerback Sean Bunting, who returned it 60 yards. The missed extra point was following a 15-yard sideline interference penalty.
OU also scored on special teams, blocking junior punter Zach Oakley's punt in the end zone for the safety, making it 26-16.
"It's always tough to win on the road," Bonamego said. "This is a great football environment, this is a first class organization. But, really proud of the grit that our team showed today. Everything didn't go our way, but we made some things happen."
Next week is homecoming for the Chippewas, who return to Kelly/Shorts Stadium against MAC West favorite Toledo at 3:30 p.m.