Photo courtesy Rich Barnes | USA Today Sports
The what-ifs surrounding Saturdays's non-conference game for Central Michigan were staggering.
For Willis, it was a fractured hand after colliding with a Kansas defender's helmet, and Childress, the sophomore, will miss the entirety of the 2017 season with a torn ACL.
It's the same injury that kept running back Romello Ross out of action last year.
Include senior tight Tyler Conklin as well and the number of experienced options for graduate transfer quarterback Shane Morris plummets.
"We have some younger guys taking on bigger roles now and we’ll get them ready," said head coach John Bonamego. "Some of them made some big plays, but we have to make them consistently."
But there was slight sense of optimism from the Chippewas that having those said players gone wouldn't be as big of an issue as most felt.
That's mainly because of who's currently leading the offense.
Morris, who started his third consecutive game for CMU against the Orange, earned MAC West Offensive Player of the Week honors after throwing 467 yards and five touchdowns in Lawrence, Kansas.
The 18-point win over the Jayhawks marked the second year in a row that Central Michigan has beaten a Big 12 Conference opponent. That mild upset provided an opportunity for the team to knock off a Power 5 program in back-to-back weeks for the first time in history.
Syracuse, known for its no huddle offense than ranks second in the country in plays per game (93), received its first loss last week to Middle Tennessee State at home, 30-23.
"I think the tempo was fast—I don’t think we got worn down," Bonamego said. "It was 80 degrees; it’s not like it was 95 or 100. It’s football and you play. I’m proud of the effort these guys put in. I didn’t see anyone quit or ask to come out of the game."
The Orange last hosted CMU in 2015, when the controversial hit by defensive end Mitch Stanitzek on now-junior quarterback Eric Dungey had the lasting memory of the game.
Apologies were made and grudges were put aside during the program's fourth ever meeting, dating back to 1999. The finish two years ago was a 30-27 overtime win for Syracuse, far different than what transpired Saturday.
When sophomore running back Jonathan Ward scored on a 17-yard swing pass from Morris midway through the second quarterback, the seven-point lead for Central Michigan was enough to say that there was a chance.
The only touchdown the Orange had before that moment was an interception returned 24-yards by Evan Foster that tied the score at 10.
"It was defiantly a great feeling just because, earlier in the game, I had made a mistake and it kind of got to me a little bit," Foster said on the pick-six. "But I knew if I kept on playing hard and getting to the ball, then I would find a way and make it happen."
The Chippewas went into halftime down 24-17 when another turnover by Morris saw SU go 53 yards on three plays before running back Dontae Strickland scored from 24-yards out.
CMU's defense allowed exactly 300 yards on the ground from a combined seven rushers, including Strickland and Dungey, the duo-threat who also went 19-of-35 passing for 279 yards and two touchdowns.
No points were scored in the final quarter by either team, but the 31 unanswered points by Syracuse did conclude at the 2:48 mark of the third when kicker Cole Murphy tacked on the final tally mark from 25 yards out.
The two touchdowns in the second half by SU involved Dungey in some form, rushing for one-yard to make it 30-17 and later finding tight end Ravian Pierce for six-yards nearly seven minutes later.
"Yeah, the win was big, especially bouncing back from last week," Dungey said. "A win is a win so we will celebrate the win obviously."
For Morris, utilizing his replacements for Willis and Childress was necessary, even if their experience on the field was cloudy. That was especially the case for Cameron Cole, the sophomore from Saline, Michigan, who caught his first career touchdown 10 minutes into the first quarter.
The first touchdown by any team, Cole scored on a 56-yard pass to give CMU its first lead of the game, 7-3. Morris eventually finished 22-of-45 passing for 279 yards and two interceptions.
Redshirt freshman Tony Poljan, who's been dubbed the future of the program, was substituted in on CMU's final drive, eventually turning the ball over on downs.
However, it was the first time the former three-star recruit saw the field since the home opener against Rhode Island.
Junior linebacker Alex Briones collected his second interception this season and ninth overall for the team. A forced fumble by defensive tackle D'Andre Dill in the first quarter eventually led to the Cole touchdown reception.
"I thought our defense played well in spots but at certain points, we just gave up some really big plays," Bonamego said.
Totaling 382 yards of total offense, CMU was 3-of-16 on 3rd down efficiency.
Beginning league play next week Sept. 23 at Kelly/Shorts Stadium against MAC East Division contender Miami (OH), the Chippewas end their non-conference schedule the following week at Boston College.
"We’ve just got to go back to work tomorrow—myself, coaches, players—and really look at this objectively," Bonamego said. "Take things to heart, accept the coaching and criticism, make the corrections and just go out and try to be a better football team next week."