I’m not going to lie.
I don’t think Central Michigan had any business being in a bowl game this year.
I didn’t think so after its embarrassing loss on national television to Navy on Oct. 11, and I didn’t think so even after it won its last three games to become bowl eligible at 6-6.
But thanks to a handful of teams ineligible for postseason play because of NCAA sanctions, the Chippewas squeezed into the Little Caesars Bowl—its first bowl game since 2009.
Its foe? A 7-5 Western Kentucky team that was making its first ever bowl appearance.
Although the fan support was in CMU’s favor, on paper, the Hilltoppers looked like a much better bet to come out victorious.
They played a tougher schedule and also featured one of the most dynamic players in the country in Antonio Andrews.
The junior running back led the nation in all-purpose yards and joined Barry Sanders as the only players in FBS history to eclipse 3,000 all-purpose yards in season.
Even though CMU ended the regular season on a three-game win streak, I still wasn’t sold this team could compete on the big stage.
The combined record of the last three teams it played was 7-29.
But that is what’s so great about college football. Fans, experts and the media are constantly being proved wrong.
And I was proved wrong Wednesday night.
Along with the game against Iowa, I think CMU played its cleanest four quarters of the season. And, to me, it boiled down to two key components: it did not turn the ball over and was able to score first on its opening drive.
I really thought the offense would struggle without suspended receivers Titus Davis and Courtney Williams, but it was able to establish a rhythm early and controlled the ball for most of the first half.
Redshirt freshman receiver Andrew Flory gave the team a spark in the first quarter, catching two long touchdown passes, and senior receiver Cody Wilson stepped up like he has many times in his career, being senior quarterback Ryan Radcliff’s go-to guy in critical situations.
None more critical than their 11-yard hookup with 5:11 remaining in the game to give the Chippewas a 24-21 lead.
For all of the criticism Radcliff has received since taking over for Dan LeFevour, he deserves a world of credit for his performance Wednesday.
He didn’t look panicked, and, most of the time, he opted for the best option receiver, delivering accurate passes more often than not (we will forget the one pass he threw into the defender’s arms that would have easily been returned for a touchdown).
His offensive line, which I believe hasn’t received as much credit as it should, also gave him ample time in the pocket against a defense that was ranked thirteenth in the nation in sacks.
It didn’t help that WKU was without the nation’s leader in sacks per game, Quanterus Smith; but, nevertheless, the line only allowed one sack.
For the first time this year, I can say I was equally impressed with both sides of the ball. CMU held WKU to 327 total yards and limited Andrews to 4.4 yards per carry.
So many times this season, the defense was unable to get stops at vital moments in the game.
Wednesday was a different story.
After junior running back Zurlon Tipton’s original touchdown rush was overturned and placed at the WKU one yard-line, the defense forced the Hilltoppers to go three-and-out, which led to the game-winning drive for the Chippewas.
WKU was marching inside the three-minute mark in CMU territory, but the Chippewas forced the Hilltoppers into a fourth-and-two situation. Instead of opting to go for the tying field goal, WKU decided to go for it.
Instead of handing the ball to Andrews, quarterback Kawaun Jakes tried to obtain a first down through the air, but the pass was just out of the reach for tight end Jack Doyle.
And so it ends.
A season that held so much optimism after a last second win over Iowa, to a season that had many fans and alumni calling for the firing of Enos after the team lost to Western Michigan, falling to 3-6.
But after a four-game win streak to end the season and a bowl victory, there should be no talk of that now.
This team is headed in the right direction. Sure it will lose several key seniors, but there are talented underclassmen ready to fill those voids. And I think the players are finally starting to buy into Enos’ system.
Hopefully, this win will get fans back into Kelly/Short Stadium for the 2013 season.