NCF Nation: Little Caesars Bowl 2012

Instant analysis: C. Michigan 24, WKU 21

December, 26, 2012

Central Michigan closed the 2012 season with its fourth straight win by holding off Western Kentucky 24-21 on Wednesday night in the Little Caesars Bowl at Ford Field.

Here’s how it went down:

It was over when: Instead of trying a 36-yard field goal that could have tied the game and forced overtime, Western Kentucky elected to go for it on fourth-and-2 from the Central Michigan 19-yard line with 51 seconds to play. Quarterback Kawaun Jakes just overthrew his tight end, Jack Doyle, who stretched out for the ball, but couldn’t come up with it inside the 5.

Turning point: With Western Kentucky punting from its own end zone, Central Michigan’s Avery Cunningham was able to get a hand on the Hilltoppers’ punt, and the Chippewas took over from their own 26 with 6:55 to play. Aided by a pair of pass interference penalties on Western Kentucky, Central Michigan needed just three plays to find the end zone and take the lead for good.

Game ball goes to: Central Michigan quarterback Ryan Radcliff finished 19-of-29 for 253 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. His final touchdown was an 11-yard strike to Cody Wilson to give the Chippewas a 24-21 lead with 5:11 remaining.

Stat of the game: Central Michigan’s Zurlon Tipton rushed for 101 yards, which was his seventh straight 100-yard rushing performance.

Unsung hero: Central Michigan redshirt freshman receiver Andrew Flory had a pair of touchdown catches in the first quarter -- a 69-yarder and 29-yarder. The Chippewas were playing without two of their top three receivers, Titus Davis and Courtney Williams, both of whom were suspended for violating team policy.

What it means: After limping into the final week of October with a 2-5 record, Central Michigan put a bow on its torrid close to the season. The Chippewas (7-6) ended up winning five of their final six games.

Little Caesars Bowl keys

December, 26, 2012
Breaking down today’s Little Caesars Bowl matchup between Western Kentucky and Central Michigan:

1. Zapping Zurlon: Not only does Central Michigan’s Zurlon Tipton have one of the best names in all of college football, but he’s the centerpiece of the Chippewas’ offense. Tipton, a 6-foot-1, 219-pound junior running back, has been Mr. Dependable: He has rushed for 100 yards or more in each of his past six contests and has 19 touchdowns on the season. Western Kentucky has been pretty salty on defense this season and is 32nd nationally against the run. The Hilltoppers are allowing 138.2 yards per game on the ground. Holding Tipton under 100 yards would go a long way toward making Western Kentucky’s first bowl appearance a successful one.

2. Replacing Quanterus: The Hilltoppers will be without their best defensive player. Senior defensive end Quanterus Smith tore the ACL in his left leg in the next-to-last game of the regular season and underwent season-ending surgery. He had 12.5 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss and was easily Western Kentucky’s most dynamic game-changer on defense. Redshirt freshman Gavin Rocker started in Smith’s place in the regular-season finale, but the Hilltoppers also plan to rotate in sophomore T.J. Smith and freshman Calvin Washington. Central Michigan quarterback Ryan Radcliff isn’t much of a threat to run, but he is effective at avoiding the rush, moving laterally and finding his receiving targets. The Chippewas have given up only 14 sacks in 12 games.

3. Winning up front: Stopping the run hasn’t been Central Michigan’s strong suit. The Chippewas, who see a lot of spread offenses in the MAC, are 98th nationally in rushing defense and allowing an average of 198.3 rushing yards per game. Western Kentucky will try to set the tone with its running game right off the bat. The Hilltoppers are extremely physical in their offensive line and will utilize multiple tight end sets. Throw in Antonio Andrews’ versatility, and this will be a huge test for the Chippewas’ defense. Andrews has rushed for 230 yards or more in each of his past two games. If he gets into a rhythm early, Central Michigan could end up spending the rest of the game on its heels.

Pregame: Little Caesars Bowl

December, 26, 2012
Western Kentucky (7-5, 4-4 Sun Belt) vs. Central Michigan (6-6, 4-4 MAC)

WHO TO WATCH: Western Kentucky running back Antonio Andrews. The 6-foot, 211-pound junior leads the country with 2,977 all-purpose yards and is the only FBS player with more than 1,500 yards rushing and 400 yards receiving. He’s averaging 248.1 all-purpose yards per game and needs 274 yards in the bowl game to break Barry Sanders’ NCAA record for all-purpose yards in a season. Sanders amassed 3,250 yards in 1988 on his way to a Hall of Fame career. Andrews, who was a quarterback in high school, is one of four finalists for the Paul Hornung Award, which is given annually to the nation’s most versatile player.

WHAT TO WATCH: Central Michigan has given up points in bunches, and Western Kentucky has given up the football in bunches. Which of those troubling trends will continue? The Chippewas are allowing 33.3 points per game and were riddled for 40 or more points in five of their six losses. The Hilltoppers, on the other hand, are minus-1 in turnover margin. They’ve fumbled the ball 21 times this season and lost 12. They’ve also thrown 12 interceptions.

WHY TO WATCH: Even though he won’t be coaching, newly hired Western Kentucky coach Bobby Petrino will still be a hot topic. He takes over a Western Kentucky program that has progressed miles under Willie Taggart, who left to take the South Florida head-coaching job. Defensive coordinator Lance Guidry is serving as the Hilltoppers’ interim head coach for this game, a role that’s familiar to him. He stepped in as the interim head coach for Miami (Ohio) at the end of the 2010 season (after Mike Haywood left for the Pittsburgh head-coaching job) and led the RedHawks to a 35-21 victory over Middle Tennessee in the Bowl.

PREDICTION: Western Kentucky 31, Central Michigan 17. It wasn’t too long ago that Western Kentucky was playing its first official season in the FBS ranks. The Hilltoppers finished 0-12 in 2009, but here they are, in their first bowl game. Central Michigan is the hot team coming in. The Chippewas had to win three in a row to close the season just to become bowl eligible. The Hilltoppers snapped a three-game losing streak with a 25-24 win over North Texas in their regular-season finale. Western Kentucky’s ability to run the ball and eat up the clock will be the difference in this one, keeping Guidry’s perfect record as an interim head coach intact.