Ryan Radcliff threw three touchdown passes, including the eventual game-winning toss to Cody Wilson late in the fourth quarter to give Central Michigan a 24-21 victory over Western Kentucky in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
Central Michigan (7-6) needed to win its final three games of the regular season to even become bowl eligible and on Wednesday justified their selection by capturing the program's first postseason victory since its last bowl appearance in 2009.
Radcliff completed 19-of-29 passes for 253 yards and tossed two touchdown passes to Andrew Flory, who logged 105 yards on just three catches. Wilson caught a game-high 10 passes for 101 yards.
"I thought our team played a complete game," Central Michigan coach Dan Enos said. "I thought it was two very close teams as far as the personnel goes. Both teams played very hard and it was a good physical game. I'm just happy to be on the good side of it."
The loss came in the Hilltoppers' (7-6) first-ever bowl game, only three years after they suffered through an 0-12 season in their first year in the Sun Belt Conference. The success led to head coach Willie Taggart departing the program for South Florida earlier this month, and Lance Guidry served as interim coach on Wednesday with the newly-hired Bobby Petrino waiting to take over.
Kawaun Jakes, the starting quarterback on the winless 2009 squad, threw a TD pass and ran for another score, but threw an incomplete pass on 4th-and-2 deep inside Central Michigan territory with under a minute remaining to seal the outcome.
Antonio Andrews totaled 184 all-purpose yards in the loss, falling 90 yards short of breaking Barry Sanders' all-time NCAA record.
Western Kentucky managed a mere five first downs in the first half to Central Michigan's 17, but still only trailed by three, 17-14, at the break.
The Hilltoppers moved the ball effectively on their second touch of the second half, however, converting all three third-downs chances on a 16-play, 80-yard march that lasted 9:23. Kadeem Jones capped the sojourn with a go-ahead 1-yard touchdown run. The fullback lost the ball as he jumped over the pile, but only after the ball crossed the plane with 1:24 remaining in the third quarter.
The Chippewas answered with a long drive of their own, but Zurlon Tipton was stopped a foot short of the goal line on 4th-and-goal from the 1. Tipton was originally ruled to have scored, but a replay showed him down by contact and the touchdown was overturned.
After gaining just two yards on three runs, the Hilltoppers were forced to punt out of the back of their own end zone. A bad snap allowed Avery Cunningham to get a hand on the ball, and CMU recovered the blocked kick at 26-yard line.
Following a pair of defensive pass interference penalties, Radcliff found Wilson on a corner route to the left for an 11-yard score and a 24-21 lead with 5:11 on the clock.
Western Kentucky moved to the opposing 19-yard line with time winding down and took a timeout when faced with a 4th-and-2 with 51 seconds remaining. Rather than attempt a tying field goal, Guidry opted for a play-action fake, and the pass fell between a diving Jack Doyle's hands to essentially secure the win for the Chippewas.
"These guys are going to get in a lot of bowls in the future and this is a good experience for them," said Guidry.
Flory scored on a pair of long passes in the first quarter, first splitting a pair of defenders on a deep post en route to a 69-yard score, then getting behind the secondary for a 29-yard TD on the Chippewas' second possession.
The Hilltoppers' first snap saw them execute a trick play, as a flea flicker resulted in a 70-yard hookup between Jakes and Rico Brown, who got tripped up at the 7-yard line. After a 1-yard gain, Jakes called his own number on a draw and dove over the goal line.
Central Michigan's David Harman banked in a 50-yard field goal off the right upright early in the second quarter, but had a 46-yarder blocked later in the opening half.
WKU cut its deficit to 17-14 midway through the second quarter with a 6-play, 75-yard drive that ended with Doyle making a one-handed catch in the corner of the end zone on 3rd-and-2 from the CMU 6-yard line.
Andrews finished with 3,161 all-purpose yards, the second most in NCAA history ... Jakes threw for 199 yards on 14-of-24 attempts ... Tipton rushed for 101 yards on 23 carries ... Central Michigan's top wide receiver, Titus Davis, along with fellow wideouts Courtney Williams and Defarrel Davis, were suspended for the game as a result of a violation of team policy ... Central Michigan reached this game, formerly the Motor City Bowl, for three straight years from 2006-08 ... Guidry led Miami-Ohio to a win in the GoDaddy.com Bowl at the end of the 2010 season as an interim head coach.