DETROIT, Mich. — Central Michigan scored what proved to be a game-winning touchdown with 5:11 remaining in the fourth quarter, and a fourth-down pass play for WKU fell incomplete as the Hilltoppers fell 24-21 Wednesday night in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl at Ford Field.
WKU ended the 2012 season with a 7-6 record, playing in the first FBS bowl game in school history.
“I am so proud of this group. The have been through so much in the last few weeks,” said WKU interim head coach Lance Guidry. “I’m proud of the way we played tonight. We left some plays out of the field that might have changed the outcome, but sometimes that’s how the cookie crumbles.”
The Hilltoppers led 21-17 entering the fourth quarter, but a blocked punt gave the Chippewas a short field with just under seven minutes remaining. Game MVP Ryan Radcliff threw his third touchdown pass of the game, connecting with Cody Wilson on an 11-yard scoring pass to put CMU in front 24-21 with 5:11 left.
WKU was able to get the ball back and drive down to the Central Michigan 19 yard line, converting two third-and-longs on the drive. On third-and-10 from the 27, Kawaun Jakes connected with Willie McNeal on an eight-yard completion. After a timeout with 51 seconds left, WKU kept its offense on the field, but a pass from Jakes to Jack Doyle was incomplete as CMU was able to run out the clock for the victory.
After taking the opening kickoff, Central Michigan appeared to be stopped on a third-down play before a holding penalty on WKU kept the drive alive. A near interception by Kiante Young brought up another third down for CMU, but this time Radcliff found Andrew Flory on a 69-yard touchdown pass to give the Chippewas a 7-0 lead with 10:54 to play in the opening quarter.
The Hilltoppers came right back as on the first play of the game Antonio Andrews threw a pass back to Jakes, who then found Rico Brown for a career-long 70-yard reception down to the CMU seven. Two plays later, Jakes ran it in from six yards to even the score at 7-7.
Flory was on the receiving end of another CMU touchdown as the Chippewas needed just six plays to go 73 yards. This time Radcliff found Flory on a 29-yard scoring pass to again put Central Michigan back on top 14-7 with 5:49 remaining in the opening quarter.
After those three quick scores, the kicking games took center stage for both teams. WKU punter Hendrix Brakefield was able to boom a 74-yard kick late in the quarter, setting a Little Caesars Pizza Bowl record, and equaling the fourth-longest punt in school history. The record was short-lived, however, as just a couple minutes later CMU’s Richie Hogan got off an 82-yard punt. Then, with 9:59 remaining in the first half, Central Michigan was able to stretch it lead to 17-7 when David Harman tied a bowl record with a 50-yard field goal.
The Hilltoppers were able to find the end zone for the second time in the half, riding the legs of Andrews down inside the Central Michigan 10-yard line. Faced with a third down from the six yard line, Jakes was able to scramble to his right and find Jack Doyle — who pulled in a one-handed touchdown grab to pull WKU within three points. That also moved Jakes past Justin Haddix into first place on WKU’s career touchdown passing list with his 51st career scoring throw.
That would prove to be the final score of the half as Xavius Boyd blocked a late CMU field-goal try, keeping the deficit at three as the teams went into the locker room.
After both teams were forced to punt on their first drives of the second half, the Hilltoppers were able to put together their longest scoring drive of the season to eat up most of the third-quarter clock. After a CMU punt traveled into the end zone for a touchback, the WKU offense was able to drive 80 yards in 16 plays, using up 9:23 of the clock. Andrews carried the ball nine times on the drive, while Jakes completed all four of his passes. That included a 22-yard pass to Kadeem Jones that down to the one-yard line. After a false start, and a five-yard Andrews run, Jones finished off the drive with a one-yard scoring dive, giving WKU a 21-17 lead with 1:24 remaining in the third quarter.
Central Michigan appeared to answer with a score on its next possession, but a review determined that Zurlon Tipton’s elbow was down at the one yard line before he crossed the goal line, giving the ball back over to WKU with 9:21 remaining. The Hilltoppers went three-and-out, however, and CMU blocked a punt that was recovered at the 26-yard line with 6:55 remaining. The Chippewas were able to capitalize as Radcliff hit Wilson for the 11-yard, game-winning touchdown.
Andrews finished the game with 119 rushing yards, setting a new Hilltopper single-season record with 1,728 yards. He also finished with 184 all-purpose yards, joining Barry Sanders as the only two players in FBS history to eclipse 3,000 all-purpose yards in a season. Jakes completed 14 of 24 passes for 199 yards in his final game as a Hilltopper.
For CMU, Radcliff finished the day 19-of-29 for 253 yards and three TDs. Both Flory (105) and Wilson (101) went over 100 yards receiving. Tipton carried the ball 23 times for 101 yards.
Despite the loss, WKU became just the eighth program since 1989 to earn a bowl berth in its first four years of eligibility. The Hilltoppers joined the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2009. WKU’s senior class also was part of a remarkable turnaround that saw the program go 0-12 during their freshman season, to putting together back-to-back winning seasons in 2011 and 2012, and giving the school its first bowl trip.