The Hilltoppers are looking for some hardware to go along with their first ever bowl game appearance.
It's hard to top the excitement of a team making its first ever bowl trip in school history. Then again, when the opposing team is playing roughly 158 miles from campus and in the same state, some of that hype is understandably taken away.
Still, in a game that may be overlooked by causal college football fans, the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl has all the ingredients necessary to be a very entertaining contest.
Tonight at 7:30 p.m. ET, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers of the Sun Belt Conference will take on the Central Michigan Chippewas of the Mid-American Conference at Ford Field in Detroit.
The Hilltoppers, who will be led by interim coach Lance Guidry after head man Willie Taggart bolted for South Florida, will be making their first ever bowl appearance after finishing the regular season 7-5. The team could not be happier considering they ended the 2011 regular season with the same record, but were not selected to play in a bowl game.
For the Chippewas, the Little Caesars Bowl marks a return to the Motor City, where the team played its postseason game in both 2007 and 2008. Central Michigan finished the 2012 regular season at 6-6, and a bowl berth very well may have saved third-year coach Dan Enos’ job.
A record seven MAC schools accepted bowl bids this season, with Central Michigan being the only .500 squad of the bunch. In addition, none of the Chippewas' six wins came against bowl-eligible teams, and its defense allowed more than 27 points nine times this season.
However, the team did show signs of improvement late in the season, winning its final three games to become bowl eligible. It is rarely pretty with the Chippewas, but the team manages to find a way to stay in ballgames thanks to running back Zurlon Tipton and quarterback Ryan Radcliff.
Tipton, the team’s leading rusher and most dangerous playmaker, is largely responsible for Central Michigan being in this game.
The junior has rushed for over 100 yards the past six games, and will be a key part of the Chippewas offensive attack in Detroit. Western Kentucky boasts the Sun Belt’s second best rush defense, though, so it could be tough sledding for Tipton.
Then there is Radcliff, the senior signal-caller and heart of the team. He doesn't always put up eye-popping numbers, but Radcliff is a fierce competitor and managed to throw for over 2900 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2012.
Since taking over for Central Michigan great Dan LeFevour, Radcliffe has suffered through two losing seasons before finally getting a chance to shine on the big stage.
Winning won’t be easy for the Chippewas, though. The team comes into this game as clear underdogs.
Western Kentucky didn’t start the season strong, but made a statement during the second half of the year. The Hilltoppers won seven of their final eight games, and made it known they go just about anywhere to play in the postseason.
The Hilltoppers feature an extremely talented player on offense in running back Antonio Andrews, the nation’s leader in all-purpose yards. In fact, Andrews is just 297 yards away from breaking Barry Sanders’ NCAA record for all-purpose yards and has a great chance to do that against a Central Michigan defense that allows nearly 200 yards per game on the ground alone.
Put simply, the Chippewas will need to find an answer for Andrews.
While Andrews should be fun to watch, Western Kentucky’s defense may wind up making the most difference. Before Taggart departed, he made it his mission to improve upon a defense that ranked 118th in the nation in yards allowed.
Needless to say, he achieved his goal. The Hilltoppers ranked first or second in the Sun Belt in every major defensive category this season.
If Western Kentucky can limit Tipton’s touches and force Radcliff into making a few bad decisions, it will put a lot of pressure on the suspect Central Michigan defense to stop one of the most versatile players in the country.
While this is a tall task, it is far from impossible. All one needs to do is look at the final score of this year’s Hawaii Bowl to see that bowl games ultimately come down to preparation.
Throw records and odds out the window. Both teams are excited to be playing in Detroit, and that should result in a very entertaining football game.