In the aftermath of the Christmas holiday, two programs with modest records took the field in Detroit for the Little Caesars Bowl. The third MAC team to feature in a bowl this year, the Central Michigan Chippewas aimed to restore some swagger to a conference that had suffered thrashings in its two previous bowls at Boise and St. Petersburg. Not always a key factor in the bowls so far, home-field advantage favored the Chippewas against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, a program that had gained momentum as well as notoriety by hiring former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino for next season. Could they sustain the momentum from that headline with a strong finish to 2012?
Pinned inside their own 20 on the opening kickoff, the Chippewas received a bit of good luck from a third-down defensive holding penalty. More flags would fly on a sloppy drive before Central Michigan quarterback Ryan Radcliff scorched the Hilltoppers secondary with a 69-yard touchdown pass to Andrew Flory. Before the extra point, consecutive false-start penalties illustrated the flaws in discipline that had undermined the Chippewas this year. Wasting no time in launching their reply, the Hilltoppers started the next drive with a 70-yard completion on a flea-flicker toss to Rico Brown and scored just two plays later on a quarterback scramble by Kawaun Jakes. Some comedy ensued on the following drive as a Central Michigan recovery of its own fumble turned a third down into a first down, followed shortly by the second Radcliff-to-Flory touchdown toss of the period. But then the offensive barrage abruptly ceased with a Western Kentucky three-and-out that produced the game’s first punt, an outstanding effort landing at the Central Michigan 5. Narrowly avoiding a likely interception and defensive touchdown on a deflected second-down pass, Radcliff could not lead the Chippewas out of the dangerous field position. A contrast with the earlier fireworks, a more grinding rhythm developed on a methodical Hilltoppers drive that stalled as the quarter ended.
Central Michigan 14, Western Kentucky 7
Whereas the Chippewas had built most of their success on the passing game in their previous scoring drives, they turned to the running game to drive from their red zone to the Western Kentucky red zone on their first possession of the period. There, the Hilltoppers defense finally awakened with alert tackles soon after the catch that thrust the ball back thirteen yards, but Central Michigan drilled a miraculous 50-yard attempt off the right upright and over the crossbar. Also turning to the running game in their next possession, Western Kentucky produced a 39-yard run from Antonio Andrews, who entered the game approaching the NCAA single-season record for all-purpose yards set by Barry Sanders. Thrust out of the pocket and under pressure on a third-down, Jakes improvised a flare towards the end zone on which his receiver executed a sparkling one-handed grab. Although Central Michigan gained considerable yardage on their next possession, their kicker followed his spectacular field goal from 50 yards with a dismal miss from shorter yardage. The ball fell well short of the necessary height before nestling in the hands of a Hilltopper defender, who could not find the seam to deliver a significant return. Stagnating on offense for the rest of the half, the teams traded punts amid a cloud of negative plays and hesitant incompletions from both quarterbacks.
As expected with two such evenly matched opponents, the game remained very much at issue when the half ended. From the first quarter to the second, however, the pace had slowed dramatically from quick scores to protracted possessions with longer intervals between plays.
Central Michigan 17, Western Kentucky 14
Early in this period, the teams traded unproductive drives that did not threaten to alter the scoreboard. Western Kentucky squandered a chance to take the lead with a potential pick-six that a cornerback dropped in the open field with no obstacles shielding the end zone from him. Eventually, Western Kentucky compiled a 15-play drive that resulted in one of the more curious touchdowns this bowl season. As the ball carrier reached across the goal line, his grip on the ball loosened, and the ball squirted into the end zone, where Central Michigan recovered. Upon a surprisingly brief review, however, the officials retained the original touchdown call under the belief (probably correct) that the ball had crossed the plane of the goal line before it slipped away from the ball carrier, resulting in the first Hilltopper lead of the game. With one quarter remaining, then, Central Michigan suddenly found itself in need of a rally to reward its local fans.
Western Kentucky 21, Central Michigan 17
Opening with an impressive third-down conversion, the Chippewas built a penetrating drive behind strong runs from Zurlon Tipton. Galvanized by his effort, the rest of the offense raised their level as well to reach their first and-goal opportunity since the first quarter. When stiff defense protected the send zone from the next three players, Central Michigan smartly gambled on a fourth-and-goal from the 1, but Tipton could not finish what he started after a play that required further review. Despite the turnover on downs, a stalled Western Kentucky drive ended with a deflected punt out of its own end zone after a low snap. Offered another opportunity in promising field position almost immediately, Radcliff capitalized with an 11-yard reception to Cody Wilson that regained the lead for the Chippewas, aided by repeated pass interference penalties. With about six minutes to play, the Hilltoppers offense threatened to stagnate until a third-down conversion, which almost resulted in a disastrous fumble when contact jarred the ball loose. Able to recover their own fumble, Western Kentucky positioned itself just inside midfield, where another third-down conversion by Jakes moved them within field goal range.
Western Kentucky still sought a touchdown, however, and came close to it on a deep throw from Jakes with less than two minutes left. Hampered by a false start on third down, the drive ultimately stopped at the threshold of the red zone with 51 seconds on the clock. Rather than attempt the game-tying field goal from 37 yards, an average distance, the Hilltoppers went for it on fourth-and-2 but failed on an incomplete pass that sealed their fate. Central Michigan had secured the first bowl victory of 2012-13 for the MAC in a Little Caesars Bowl that featured action occasionally sloppy but rarely boring.
Final score: Central Michigan 24, Western Kentucky 21
Next bowl recaps:
Belk Bowl: Cincinnati (Big East) vs. Duke (ACC)
Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl: Baylor (Big 12) vs. #17 UCLA (Pac-12)