Only a few years ago, Western Kentucky was a highly successful Division I-AA program under Jack Harbaugh, father to NFL coaches Jim and John. Now, one of Jack Harbaugh’s top former players has taken the Hilltoppers to new heights.
Willie Taggart led Western Kentucky to its first bowl game in program history in only its fourth season as a full member of the Football Bowl Subdivision. In the grand scheme of things, four years separating an FBS debut and a bowl game is quick work, but it’s a year too late for Western Kentucky.
A year ago, the Hilltoppers were a bowl snub despite finishing 7-5 overall and 7-1 in the Sun Belt. Western Kentucky’s chip on its shoulder will be a key storyline in the the bowl against Central Michigan, especially with the momentum the hometown Chippewas bring to Detroit. Taggart won't be on the sideline for this game, as he left to be the new coach at South Florida.
While Western Kentucky lost three of its last four, Central Michigan is on a hot streak entering the bowl game by winning four of its last five and three in a row. The late-season rally landed Central Michigan in its fifth bowl game since 2006 but its first under Dan Enos, who went 6-12 in his first two seasons with the Chippewas.
Little Caesars Pizza Bowl - Central Michigan (6-6) vs. Western Kentucky (7-5)
Date and time: Dec. 26, 7:30 p.m. ET
Location: Detroit, Mich.
When Central Michigan has the ball:
Central Michigan has a veteran quarterback in Ryan Radcliff, but the Chippewas leaned on all-name team running back Zurlon Tipton late in the season. Tipton rushed for 956 yards and 14 touchdowns during the second half of the season. Creep up too much on Tipton, and Western Kentucky can expect Radcliff to test the Hilltoppers defense down the field. Receiver Titus Davis averaged 20 yards per catch (43 for 860 yards) with eight touchdowns but is suspended for the bowl game. Look for Cody Wilson to be Radcliff's top target against Western Kentucky.
Western Kentucky led the Sun Belt in total defense and placed 23rd nationally at 344.4 yards allowed per game, but the defense took a hit with a season-ending injury to defensive end Quanterus Smith. The 6-foot-5 defensive end led the nation in sacks but was lost for the season Nov. 17 to a torn ACL. Western Kentucky did not record a sack in its final game without Smith. Even without their star pass rusher, the Hilltopers still have a veteran-laden defense. First-team All-Sun Belt selection Andrew Jackson led the league in tackles, and free safety Jonathan Dowling led the league in interceptions (six).
When Western Kentucky has the ball:
Taggart, a disciple of multiple Harbaughs, preferred the power run game. In the 6-foot, 211-pound Antonio Andrews, Western Kentucky has great foundation, regardless of who calls the plays in the bowl game. Andrews rushed for 468 yards in the final two games, propelling him to 1,609 yards for the year. He’s also a standout returner (12.8 yards per punt return, 28 yards per kickoff return). Central Michigan’s first task will be to limit the damage from the Hilltoppers’ back. Quarterback Kawaun Jakes can be mistake-prone with eight interceptions in his final six games, including three against FAU. But he has one of the nation’s most productive tight ends in Jack Doyle.
Central Michigan will be hard-pressed to beat Western Kentucky up front as the Chippewas were near the bottom of the MAC in sacks and tackles for a loss. The Chippewas gave up at least 200 rushing yards in five games this season. If Western Kentucky goes to the air, Central Michigan safety Jahleel Addae has been a capable ball hawk with four interceptions in the final six games, including one in each of the last two.
Central Michigan’s finish should be greeted with skepticism. The Chippewas defeated four opponents whose combined record was 8-40, and all of their six losses came by at least 11 points. Behind Andrews, Western Kentucky should be able to run the ball on the Chippewas’ defense, which could be bad news for the local team.
Prediction: Western Kentucky 35, Central Michigan 14
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