Ryan Radcliff threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Cody Wilson with 5:11 remaining to give Central Michigan the lead, and Western Kentucky was stopped on fourth down when a field goal would have tied the game in the final minute, giving the Chippewas a 24-21 win in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl on Wednesday night.
Lance Guidry, coaching the Hilltoppers on an interim basis before Bobby Petrino takes over, decided to play for the win on fourth-and-2 from the 19 with 51 seconds left, but Kawaun Jakes threw incomplete.
Western Kentucky (7-6) fell just short in its first bowl since joining college football's top tier in 2009.
Avery Cunningham blocked a punt for Central Michigan (7-6) to give the Chippewas a short field before Wilson's TD.
Radcliff went 19 of 29 for 253 yards and three touchdowns, but Central Michigan needed to rally late. Zurlon Tipton appeared to have put the Chippewas ahead in the fourth quarter, but his fourth-down run was ruled short of the goal line after a review.
With Western Kentucky still up 21-17, the Hilltoppers had to punt from their own end zone. Cunningham blocked it, and although the ball bounced around for a bit, the Chippewas finally secured it and took over with great field position inside the 30.
Radcliff found Wilson in the back left corner of the end zone for a 24-21 lead.
Western Kentucky's final drive ended when Jakes' pass intended for Jack Doyle fell incomplete.
Petrino, the Hilltoppers' coach-in-waiting, was expected to be at Ford Field watching his new team, but a snowstorm forced him to scrap those plans. Western Kentucky started aggressively.
Down 7-0, the Hilltoppers ran a flea-flicker on their first play from scrimmage, with Antonio Andrews running to his right, then tossing the ball back to Jakes, who found Rico Brown for a 70-yard gain.
Two plays later, Jakes scored on a 6-yard run to tie it.
Central Michigan answered with a 73-yard drive that ended with Andrew Flory's 29-yard touchdown reception, his second of the quarter.
The offenses settled down a bit for the rest of the quarter. Both teams were backed up by a pair of terrific punts. Hendrix Brakefield's 74-yarder pinned Central Michigan at its own 5, but Richie Hogan flipped the field position with a punt that sailed past Andrews and bounced back to the Western Kentucky 12. The 82-yard effort was returned only 4 yards.
David Harman's 50-yard field goal put the Chippewas up 17-7, but Jakes threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Doyle, with the tight end making a one-handed catch to pull Western Kentucky within three.
The TD pass was the 51st for Jakes, breaking a tie with Justin Haddix atop the school's career list.
Harman had a field goal blocked later in the half, and although the Chippewas were in range for another attempt in the final minute, Radcliff was sacked and fumbled. He was able to recover, but the last few seconds of the half ticked off.
Western Kentucky took a 21-17 lead in the third on a 1-yard run by Kadeem Jones, which capped an 80-yard drive that used 9:23.
Andrews rushed for 119 yards, but he fell short of the 274 all-purpose yards he needed to break the single-season record of 3,250 set by Oklahoma State's Barry Sanders in 1988.
Central Michigan took a 7-0 lead on a 69-yard touchdown pass from Radcliff to Flory. Western Kentucky safety Jonathan Dowling whiffed on a tackle near midfield, and Flory was gone.
Dowling had a chance to make up for that mistake early in the third quarter, but with his team down 17-14, he dropped an interception near midfield that he could have easily returned for a touchdown.