Just two weeks after hiring Bobby Petrino as head coach, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers will take part in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl at Ford Field in Detroit against the Central Michigan Chippewas.
On Dec. 10 it was announced that Petrino, the former Arkansas head coach, would be taking over for Western Kentucky following this season. Petrino is 75-26 all-time as a head coach but was fired from Arkansas last summer after a scandal involving an Arkansas staff member. However in this game it will be defensive coordinator Lance Guidry who will serve as interim head coach for the departing Willie Taggart.
Under Taggart, Western Kentucky posted a record of 7-5, which gave the Hilltoppers their second straight seven-win season after the team managed only four total wins in the previous three years. The Hilltoppers stumbled down the stretch to get there with losses in three straight before a 25-24 win over North Texas in the regular-season finale. Even more importantly, Western Kentucky is playing in its first bowl game ever since moving to the FBS level in 2007.
"We're just excited," Western Kentucky tight end Jack Doyle said. "You can feel the energy around here about going to this program's first bowl game as a Division I member. It's just an exciting time and (we're) excited to get it going."
As for Central Michigan, the Chippewas needed to wait until the final game of the season to earn their bowl bid. The Chippewas were just 3-6 with three games remaining but managed to pull out three straight wins, two coming on the road, to earn the six victories necessary for bowl eligibility. With the win at UMass to end the regular season, the Chippewas earned their first bowl bid since 2009 and seventh overall. This is also the fifth bowl game in the last seven seasons for Central Michigan. In those previous contests the Chippewas have a 2-4 record with the most recent decision a 44-41 win over Troy in the GMAC Bowl, which is now the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
This will not just be the first bowl game for Western Kentucky but also the first time the Hilltoppers have ever squared off with Central Michigan on the gridiron.
Despite being a mediocre offensive team this season, Western Kentucky did have one of the best offensive weapons in the country in running back Antonio Andrews. The All-Sun Belt First Team member had a spectacular season both on the ground and through the air. Andrews finished the regular season with 2,977 all-purpose yards which is the third best single-season mark in Division I history and only 273 yards behind the all-time mark set by Barry Sanders in 1988. The all-purpose yards mark also broke the Sun Belt Conference's record by more than 300 yards. Andrews got the bulk of his work done on the ground (1,609 yards, 11 touchdowns) but also hauled in 34 passes for 411 yards and three scores.
"We looked at it. We have another good ball club. They have some good linebackers, d-line, safeties and I know they have a good d-coordinator. So we're going to have to come out here and do what we do," Andrews said of Central Michigan while asserting how ready he is to play. "(The) week off I was able to catch my legs. I feel refreshed and ready to go. I feel like it's week one."
Even with Andrews the Hilltoppers still ranked near the middle of the Sun Belt in scoring (28.8 ppg, fifth) and total offense (392.3 ypg, sixth).
Kawaun Jakes is the man under center. Jakes was efficient this season, completing 64.6 percent of his passes, while throwing for 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Doyle (47 receptions, 530 yards, 4 TDs) and Willie McNeal (40 receptions, 506 yards, 6 TDs) are the top pass catching threats for Western Kentucky, and along with Andrews the only players with more than 13 receptions this year.
Western Kentucky had much more star power on defense and was markedly better on that side of the ball in 2012. The Hilltoppers were the best team in their conference in terms of total yards allowed (342.8 ypg), while ranking second in scoring defense (25.6 ppg). The key was how well Western Kentucky got upfield and made plays, leading the Sun Belt in tackles for loss (90) and sacks (31).
One of three First-Team All-Sun Belt selections on the unit, Andrew Jackson (116 tackles, 15.7 TFLs) is definitely the leader, after totaling the second most tackles, and the most solo stops (78) in the conference. Jackson's leadership role is even more pronounced with the loss of Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year Quanterus Smith. Smith suffered a knee injury at the end of November, which ended his campaign. Safety Jonathan Dowling (60 tackles, six INTs) also earned all-conference honors.
Like Western Kentucky, Central Michigan wasn't anything special when it came to overall offensive numbers. The Hilltoppers ranked seventh in the Mid- American Conference in total yards (394.1 ypg) and tied for sixth in scoring offense (29.3 ppg). Central Michigan did excel when it managed to get drives into the red zone, converting on a MAC-leading 88.89 percent of its attempts.
Ryan Radcliff is the signal caller for the Chippewas. Radcliff didn't complete an extremely high percentage of his pass attempts (59.0), but did throw for 2,905 yards and 20 touchdowns with only nine interceptions. Radcliff threw for the fifth most yards per game in the MAC (242.1) and was the fourth highest rated passer (136.3).
In the running game, Zurlon Tipton has been the workhorse for the Chippewas. Tipton has piled up 1,391 yards on 229 carries. No other player on the team has more than 53 carries for 235 yards. Tipton was one of six players in the MAC to average more than 100 rushing yards per game and tied with Northern Illinois' quarterback Jordan Lynch for the most rushing touchdowns (19) in the conference. Tipton was an obvious selection for the First-Team All-MAC team. A Detroit native, Tipton is obviously excited to come back and play in his home town.
"I am excited to be able to come back to my hometown to play in this game," Tipton said. "It is going to be fun to play in front of so many of our fans and I expect it is going to be a great game."
Another offensive player to watch for on an individual level is wide receiver Titus Davis (43 receptions, 806 yards, 8 TDs). For his efforts in 2012 Davis earned First-Team All-MAC honors. While his numbers are not eye-popping, Cody Wilson (64 receptions, 739 yards, 2 TDs), turned in a strong season as well, picking up Second-Team All-MAC honors for the second straight year, while ranking 10th in the conference in receptions.
CMU was bolstered by an offensive line headlined by Third-Team All-American Eric Fisher at tackle. Fisher was also tabbed a First-Team All-MAC selection.
On defense Central Michigan was rather pedestrian in comparison to the rest of the conference. The Chippewas were the seventh best team in the MAC in yards allowed (441.2 ypg) and ninth in scoring defense (33.3 ppg). While the offense constantly found success in the red zone the defense was almost always giving up scores, with the 11th best opponent conversion rate (86.8 percent) in the conference. Central Michigan also failed to get much in terms of negative plays with the fewest tackles for loss (47.0) in the MAC.
Senior safety Jahleel Addae (81 tackles, 7.0 TFLs, 4 INTs) was the lone defender to earn All-MAC honors as he was named to the First Team. Justin Cherocci (124 tackles) and Shamari Benton (117 tackles) each had large tackle totals but managed only four tackles for loss combined. Caesar Rodriguez (four sacks) was the best pass rusher on a team that failed to get consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks.