TEAMS: Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (7-5, 4-4 Sun Belt Conference) vs. Central Michigan Chippewas (6-6, 4-4 Mid-American Conference)
TIME: 7:30 p.m. ET
LAS VEGAS LINES: Western Kentucky -51/2; Over/Under 571/2
The selection committee for the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl really did the Mid-American Conference a solid by initially passing on its choice, in an effort to get the conference an extra bid among its seven bowl eligible programs.
“In conjunction with the Mid-American Conference and the GoDaddy.com Bowl, we responded to an historic opportunity for our longtime affiliate conference and deferred the first MAC Conference selection for this year, in exchange for having the first MAC selection in 2013,” said CEO & Executive Director Ken Hoffman. “This move allows a nationally-ranked MAC Division Champion to face the Sun Belt Conference Champion in this bowl season. Further, we are pleased to welcome Central Michigan and Western Kentucky to the 2012 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. Our history of success with CMU and the enthusiasm of WKU, in its first bowl experience, give us confidence that the bowl will be a highly competitive game with two excited fan bases.”
Western Kentucky is making its first bowl appearance since moving up from FCS, the culmination of Willie Taggart’s remarkable job building his alma mater into a worthy FBS program. Taggart will not be on the sidelines; he accepted the coaching vacancy at USF earlier this month. Western Kentucky hired former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, but Lance Guidry handled postseason preparation and will lead the Hilltoppers on Wednesday. If precedent holds true, Guidry has a wild one in store for his collegiate head coaching debut.
Past Little Caesars Pizza (formerly Motor City) Bowls have been exciting and competitive. The last time it pit the MAC against the Sun Belt, FIU topped Toledo on a field goal, set up by a hook-and-ladder play. Such is the nature of a bowl game decided by a combined 17 points over the last five seasons.
Central Michigan made three Motor City Bowl appearances from 2006 through 2008, and twice in the game’s recent run of photo finishes (2007 and 2008). In each of those, the Chippewas lost by a field goal. CMU’s one win came over Middle Tennesse, 31-14 in 2006. A rematch could have been in order, but 8-4 MTSU — which beat Western Kentucky — was left out of the bowl picture.
Of course, WKU knows about the sometimes unfair politicking of the postseason. The Hilltoppers went 7-5 a season ago, but were left without a bowl bid in favor of 6-7 UCLA.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Central Michigan can score points. After taking over for Butch Jones, Dan Enos eschewed the version of the spread reliant on a dual threat quarterback. Ryan Radcliff was given a green light to pass often in the new system, throwing 466 times in 2010 and 453 in 2011. This season, his workload has been reduced — 378 attempts — and he has yet to break 3000 yards as he had the last two seasons.
But Radcliff throwing less has been a positive for the Chippewas. Enos found a reliable rushing option to work as a catalyst for the offense, much like Javon Ringer in Enos’ time as a Michigan State assistant. Zurlon Tipton carried 227 times this season, three more than he and leading rushers Paris Cotton and Anthony Garland rushed for combined in 2011.
Tipton is a first down away from surpassing 1400 yards and has 19 touchdowns. He’s also a reliable target in the passing game with 22 receptions, making him one of four Chippewas to catch over 20 balls. Cody Wilson and Titus Davis lead Radcliff’s targets with 107 receptions for 1599 yards.
Looking to pressure Radcliff and disrupt Tipton is Western Kentucky defensive end Quanterus Smith, one of the best lineman in the country. Smith has 12.5 sacks on the year for the highest per game average in college football. Smith paces the nation’s No. 23 most prolifically sacking defense, which also includes linebackers Baree Boyd and Andrew Jackson. You may remember Jackson from his “they supposed to be SEC” analysis of Kentucky in 2011.
The pressure Guidry drew up as WKU’s defensive coordinator pairs nicely with tight coverage in the secondary. Western Kentucky allows just over 206 yards per game through the air. Jonathan Dowling is one of the most dangerous ball hawks patrolling a secondary anywhere in college football. He’s picked off six passes on the season and taken one back for a touchdown.
Should WKU contain Central Michigan’s offense, the Hilltoppers will firmly control this game’s pace. The Central Michigan defense is porous, surrendering more than 33 points per game. Running back Antonio Andrews paces WKU at 1609 yards.
Andrews is also a vital contributor in special teams as Western Kentucky’s punt returner. He averages 12.8 yards an opportunity and has taken one back to the house.