Central Michigan starts fast, holds off Washington State late in 24-21 win in Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl

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EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – Given how crazy the entire week leading up to the 88th annual Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl was, Friday’s game simply lived up to the standard set by build-up.

Central Michigan, a team from the Mid-American Conference filling in for Miami on three days notice due to COVID-19 cases, jumped out to a 21-0 halftime lead and held off a late charge from Pac-12 foe Washington State to win the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl, 24-21, on a rainy Friday afternoon in El Paso.

“That’s a Pac-12 team. We just have a bunch of guys that work their tails off and it showed today. Our guys came out to win,” said Central Michigan head coach Jim McElwain.

Arriving in El Paso about 19 hours before kickoff, Central Michigan started fast. The Chippewas’ Lew Nichols III, the nation’s leading rusher, lived up to the billing, carrying 29 times for 137 yards and touchdown in the victory. For his efforts, Nichols was named the MVP of the 2021 Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl.

Daniel Richardson was 17-33 for 208 yards and a touchdown, as Central Michigan (9-4) and head coach Jim McElwain won its first bowl game since 2012.

“We came together as a team today and we dominated up front and we came away with the win,” said Nichols after his standout performance. “I’m just blessed for the whole season and today. The coaches put together a good game plan (on short notice), but we had to go out and execute it. It’s still football.”

A CMU touchdown by Joel Wilson gave the Chips’ a 21-0 lead at halftime and when the Cougars emerged from the halftime locker room without starting quarterback Jayden de Laura (lower body injury), Washington State (7-6) appeared to be in some trouble.

However, a CMU fumble on its first drive of the third quarter as the Chippewas were driving to score gave Washington State life. The Cougars got stellar play from third-string quarterback Victor Gabalis in the second half, as he engineered a pair of scoring drives late in the third quarter, the second of which ended with a 4th down touchdown pass from Gabalis to De’Zhaun Stribling to make it a 21-14 game after three quarters.

At the outset of the fourth quarter, Washington State blocked a Central Michigan field goal to keep it a one-score game, but couldn’t capitalize. The Chippewas banged home a field goal with 9:11 remaining to take a 24-14 lead, but the Cougars once again showed some fight.

Gabalis engineered a four play, 86-yard drive in just 1:39, ending in a touchdown pass to Lincoln Victor to WSU within 24-21 with 3:13 left. Washington State would force a Central Michigan punt and get the ball back with a chance to tie or win the game with 2:37 remaining.

However, the Cougars couldn’t get much of anything going on that drive and their season ended on a 4th down pass from Gabalis to Joey Hobert that ended up short of the line to gain. The Chippewas took over and kneeled out the clock; McElwain then received a postgame bath of Frosted Flakes in celebration.

“It’s been the story of our season – there’s been many times where our guys could have went the other way and could have quit on this game, and they kept fighting. I’m proud of their fight and resolve. We just fell short,” said Washington State head coach Jake Dickert after the game.

“I’m really proud of my teammates,” added Washington State wide receiver Lincoln Victor. “I mean, I’m more grateful for them always making me better, every single day. I can’t thank them enough. I just wish we would have finished a little bit better.”

The game itself provided enough entertainment to distract from the week leading up to the game. Washington State arrived in El Paso on Sunday; less than two hours later, Miami was forced to pull out of the contest due to COVID-19 protocols.

On Monday, Boise State pulled out of the Arizona Bowl for the same reason; Central Michigan was slated to play the Broncos in Tucson, but plans were quickly made for the Chippewas to travel a few hours east on I-10 to instead play the Cougars in the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl.

“For us, it’s about making it sustainable. It’s about letting the people know in our conference that it isn’t just going to be a walkover when they play Central. They’d better strap it up, and we’re gonna be there to play,” said McElwain.

The Sun Bowl committee went through painstaking effort to get ready for the Chippewas on short notice, including sewing the bowl game logos on Central Michigan’s jerseys that had been shipped from Mount Pleasant, Mich., overnight.

They also painted over the Miami logo in the end zone and added a CMU logo in the north end zone; however, rain on gameday forced the rapid deterioration of the paint job and by the third quarter of Friday’s game, the UTEP Miners logo could be seen more visibly than CMU’s.

In addition, the Washington State band did not make the trip; instead, the El Dorado High School band filled in for them on short notice on Friday.

Those details will all be ancillary, though, as the most important detail of the Sun Bowl came through: a game was actually played. After the game was cancelled in 2020 due to COVID-19, just having the game that brings between $14-$25 million per year to El Paso was massive.

“It would have been devastating not to have the game two years in a row,” said Sun Bowl executive director Bernie Olivas earlier this week. “Two years in a row. It could have killed us. It puts El Paso in a positive national light all over the country. That’s good because most of the time that El Paso is in the national news, it’s usually not good. For four hours, CBS is going to do a tremendous job, as they always do, of promoting our city and entice people to come and visit us here. We have a tremendous city.”

There was a smaller crowd on hand Friday than normal, which can be attributed to a variety of factors, including the rainy weather; Miami exiting the game; Central Michigan traveling in on short notice; and the difficulties of traveling to El Paso from the Pacific Northwest.

Sun Bowl officials said on Friday that they won’t know how many fans actually requested ticket refunds until next week. The deadline to ask for a refund was midnight on Dec. 30. Tickets bought before Dec. 5 were non-refundable.

Hopefully the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl will return in its full-on glory in 2022, but Central Michigan’s win over Pac-12 foe Washington State will go down forever as one of the most memorable Sun Bowls in history.

“I felt that our mindset going into it changed because we felt like they picked us and they picked us out as far as they knew they were going to beat us,” said CMU linebacker Troy Brown. “So, we took that as a mindset that we were fixing to come here like we’re going to show you. Like, you’re not just gonna pick us out and just think that we’re like the little brother. So we just came out here. We played our game, and we showed them what happened.”

The Chippewas most definitely proved what they set out to do on Friday afternoon.

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