Nassau, Bahamas (SportsNetwork.com) - Entering postseason play with identical 7-5 records, the Central Michigan Chippewas and the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers will take part in the inaugural Popeyes Bahamas Bowl a day before Christmas at Thomas Robinson National Stadium.
Central Michigan enjoyed a strong 2014 campaign, finishing 5-3 in Mid-American Conference play. This is Central Michigan's sixth bowl game appearance in program history, with the latest postseason contest for the Chippewas occurring in the 2012 Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl, which coincidentally was against WKU and resulted in a 24-21 win over the Hilltoppers.
Western Kentucky got things started on the right foot in 2014 with a resounding 59-31 victory over Bowling Green. The team finished it off by taking down previously unbeaten Marshall, 67-66, in overtime. This is only the second bowl game for WKU since moving up from the Division I-AA (now FCS) level. The other bowl game was the loss to CMU in 2012.
That clash in the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl in 2012 has served as the only time Central Michigan and Western Kentucky have met on the football field.
Although Central Michigan is entering this clash coming off a loss to Western Michigan, 32-20, the Chippewas should be fired up after the success the team was able to sustain this season, especially on the offensive end. Quarterback Cooper Rush was much improved, leading his team to a 25.2 ppg average by throwing for 2,664 yards with 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
It's been Central Michigan's run game, though, that has surprised at 158.7 ypg. Thomas Rawls is at the center of that core groups of backs, averaging 122.6 rushing ypg with 10 touchdowns in just nine games played. Rawls is probable to play in the Bahamas Bowl after dealing with leg issues for a good portion of the season. Either way, Devon Spalding (four touchdowns) and Saylor Lavallii (four touchdowns) will be ready to provide assistance if necessary.
Rush was boosted by the return of several top targets this season, including that of senior receiver Titus Davis. Davis missed time in the season due to injury, but still hauled in 54 passes for 843 yards and nine touchdowns in just nine games played. Jesse Kroll provided a nice secondary threat for Rush if Davis was swallowed up by an opposing defense, catching 32 passes for 473 yards and four touchdowns, though he did most of his damage early on in the year.
Defensively, the Chippewas came together at certain points during the season, but it wasn't as cohesive and smooth as coach Dan Enos probably would have liked. The Chippewas averaged 23.2 ppg allowed to opponents, which is a respectable number. But 144 points for the opposition this season came off of Central Michigan turnovers, something Enos would naturally like to eliminate moving forward into next season.
Linebacker Justin Cherocci led Central Michigan with 107 tackles this season, adding in decent numbers in tackles for loss (seven) and sacks (four). Linemen Joe Ostman (10 tackles for loss, three sacks) and Blake Serpa (11.5 tackles for loss, four sacks) were much more disruptive in opponents' backfields over the course of the season. Tony Annese (three interceptions, 10 pass breakups) and Brandon Greer (three interceptions) will try to lock things down against a strong WKU passing game.
"I want to thank the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl for the invitation to be a part of its inaugural game," Enos said. "Playing in our sixth bowl game in the past nine seasons is a great accomplishment for this program. Western Kentucky is a great team and I expect a hard fought game when we face off on Dec. 24."
The Chippewas will have their work cut out for them defensively, as they prepare to take on the nation's top statistical quarterback in Brandon Doughty of Western Kentucky. Doughty leads the FBS with 4,344 passing yards and 44 touchdowns, which is six more than Oregon's Marcus Mariota, who won the Heisman Trophy. Doughty is the main reason the Hilltoppers average 44.0 ppg and 525.2 total offensive ypg.
The team's running game hasn't been too shabby either, even following the loss of Antonio Andrews to the NFL. Leon Allen paces the Hilltoppers this season with 1,490 yards and 12 touchdowns out of the backfield for a WKU offense averaging 160.2 rushing ypg. Anthony Wales contributed four touchdowns on the ground during the season as well.
Doughty had a strong year passing the football. Jared Dangerfield led the Hilltoppers with 64 receptions and 10 touchdowns, though his 738 receiving yards fell just short of Taywan Taylor's 739-yard mark. Willie McNeal and Taylor each hauled in seven touchdown catches, and Antwane Grant caught five.
While WKU did a steady job burying teams offensively to the point where the opposition simply couldn't keep pace, the team's defense appeared capable of taking some time off. The Hilltoppers allowed opponents to score 39.2 ppg this season and gain over 500 yards of total offense per outing. Nine times this year Western Kentucky surrendered 31 points or more in a game, and four of those opponents scored at least 50 points.
Nick Holt registered a team-best 103 tackles this season with seven tackles for loss and four quarterback hurries. Though he led the team in the tackle category, the real brightest stars on WKU's defense were Branden Leston (four interceptions), Bryan Shorter (5.5 sacks) and Wonderful Terry, who had several game-clinching turnovers. The WKU defense allows 229.7 rushing ypg to opponents, so Central Michigan will really be hoping for Rawls to be healthy in this one.
"It is a tremendous reward and opportunity for our players and coaches who have worked incredibly hard this season," said WKU head coach Jeff Brohm. "A bowl game is one of our goals at the beginning of every season, and to be able to realize and achieve that goal is a credit to their attitude and willingness to put in the effort to get better each and every week."