The Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky complete an incredible climb to an FBS bowl, but they’ll be without the man most responsible for getting them there. Coach and Alum Willie Taggart led the Hilltoppers to their second consecutive 7-5 season and their first bowl but has since moved on to take the head coaching job at South Florida. He’ll be replaced by Bobby Petrino as head coach, but for this game it’ll be defensive coordinator Lance Guidry that calls the shots. He’s won a bowl game as an interim coach before, but can he get WKU a win as they take on Central Michigan? Here’s how I see this one going down:
When to Watch: December 26, 7:30 PM
Where to Watch: Live on ESPN from Ford Field, Detroit, Michigan
What to Watch for…
When Central Michigan has the ball: Chippewas quarterback Ryan Radcliff is just 95 yards short of his third 3,000 yard season in a row leading Central Michigan to over 29 points per game. He has plenty of playmakers to work with led by running back Zurlon Tipton who had 1,391 yards on the ground with 19 touchdowns and wide-out Titus Davis who led the team with 860 yards and eight touchdowns. Overall, the Chippewas offense is solid across the board, but not spectacular in any one area. They rank in the middle of the pack nationally in most of the major categories.
The Hilltoppers defense will be hurt by the loss of star DE Quanterus Smith who led the FBS in sacks per game finishing the year with 12.5. Smith hurt his knee against Louisiana-Lafayette back on November 17. The rest of the defensive unit will have to step up, but they aren’t without playmakers eve in Smith’s absence. Linebacker Andrew Jackson and defensive back Jonathan Dowling were also Sun Belt all-conference selections on defense and will face the task of shutting down the Chippewas.
When Western Kentucky has the ball: The offense is centered on Junior running back Antonio Andrews who is chasing the single-season NCAA record for all-purpose yards. Andrews had 1,609 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground adding 957 return yards with a total of 2,977 yards overall. He’s going to need a big performance since he trails Barry Sanders’ record of 3,250 by 274 yards. If the Central Michigan D loads up against Andrews though, quarterback Kawaun Jakes has shown he can make plays too throwing for 21 touchdowns and over 2,000 yards in his fourth year as starting QB. The leading receiver for the Hilltoppers is Senior tight end Jack Doyle.
Central Michigan’s defense has struggled this season ranking 98th in scoring defense, 97th in rushing defense, and 93rd in total defense. Those rankings would seemingly point to a big day for Edwards and a real shot at history as he chases this major NCAA record. Central Michigan has held their opponent under 20 points just twice this year while allowing 40 of more five times. Expect the Hilltoppers to be in the endzone early and often in this one.
Who to Watch for (NFL Prospects)
The top prospect in this game isn’t a skill position player, but does have the skill set to go in the first round and contribute immediately in the NFL next season. Eric Fisher-Central Michigan-OT currently projects in the late first or early second round and is considered the best Senior Left Tackle available in the draft.At 6’7″ he’s taller than many OT’s but has the motor and drive to be a starter in the league for years to come. Other CMU draft possibilities include Jahleel Addae-Central Michigan-SS who will likely be drafted in mid-rounds in a relatively deep safety class this season.
The only Hilltopper who looks likely to be drafted is Quanterus Smith but it’s tricky to project where and when he’ll go after his knee injury. It will also be interesting to see if Antonio Edwards comes out early if he can get the record. Edwards has only started for this year and would benefit from another year in college if he can have another successful year like this one.
The Chippewas are used to playing in this bowl but at 6-6 they’re not that inspiring of an option. They had to win their last three games to be bowl eligible but they played UMass, Eastern Michigan, and Miami (OH) who had a total of seven wins on the season among the three of them. They’ve been in this bowl game four times with only one win, so even in the middle of a coaching change I’ll take the Hilltoppers.
Western Kentucky has dropped three of four so they don’t inspire a ton of confidence either, but I do think they’ll get the win here. The spread right now has the Chippewas getting five points and in a matchup this even I’d take the points. Straight-up go WKU; against the spread Central Michigan’s the pick.