The prospect of playing in a bowl game looked slim for the football team following the 41-30 loss to Ball State during Homecoming on Oct. 20.
The loss at Kelly/Shorts Stadium dropped the team to 2-5, and another disappointing season under third-year coach Dan Enos appeared imminent.
But the Chippewas won five of their final six games, culminating with a 24-21 win in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl on Dec. 26, just the third bowl win in program history.
“We’re obviously very excited we finished the way we did,” said head coach Dan Enos. “I’m just really proud of our team and our coaches for putting together the season that we did. Our league was very good this year, and we felt we had a team that was capable of playing in a bowl. It’s very gratifying to meet that goal, and then to win the game was great for our seniors and everybody involved.”
CMU went 3-9 in its first two seasons under Enos. This season’s 7-6 record was a large improvement, something the team was confident was going to happen all along.
“This whole season, we felt we had our best football team since I’ve been here,” Enos said. “We had a more complete team.”
The Chippewas opened the season with a hard-fought win over Southeast Missouri State before it began a brutal stretch for their next five games. Four of the five teams on CMU’s schedule, including Michigan State, Northern Illinois, Toledo and Navy, would all go on to play in bowl games.
The Chippewas went 1-4 over that stretch, but the one win came in thrilling fashion, a 32-31 victory against Iowa. Senior kicker David Harman made a 47-yard field goal with three seconds left to give CMU the win at Kinnick Stadium.
Following the loss to Ball State, the Chippewas beat Akron 35-14. The following week, they lost to rival Western Michigan 42-31, but that would be the last time CMU would lose in 2012.
Victories over Eastern Michigan, Miami (OH) and Massachusetts earned the Chippewas their bowl trip, where they defeated Western Kentucky by three.
Enos said the team’s ability to practice better was huge in his team’s progress.
“We had more players,” he said. “We were able to put a scout team offensive line and scout team defense out there. Our first two years, we were unable to do that because we didn’t have enough bodies.”
The revival of CMU’s running game was also pivotal. In 2011, CMU had no consistency in its rushing attack. Its leading rusher had just 409 yards.
But in 2012, junior running back Zurlon Tipton rushed for 1,492 yards and 19 touchdowns running behind a rock-solid offensive line led by future-first round draft pick Eric Fisher.
Senior quarterback Ryan Radcliff also had his best season from a decision-making standpoint. He threw just nine interceptions, compared to 16 and 17 in his previous two seasons. He completed over 59 percent of his passes and threw for 3,158 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Radcliff and Fisher, along with senior wide receiver Cody Wilson and senior safety Jahleel Addae, were the cornerstones of a senior class that had gone through some rough times under Enos but were huge in the team’s success in 2012.
“We had very good character guys in our senior class,” Enos said. “We needed them to be leaders, and that turned out to be the case.”
In 2013, CMU will have to replace its quarterback, members of the offensive line, defense and special teams. New players will also need to step up and lead a team that made progress this season.
“We need to continue to build on what this team did,” Enos said. “I challenge the team every year by reminding them that, starting right now, no one cares about the 2012 team anymore. The 2013 team has accomplished nothing
“We have a lot of good young players returning but we need to continue to work and improve and have the same mindset that we had this year, which is that we’re a blue-collar football team that comes to work every day,” he said. “We’re going to handle anything that people will throw at us and keep moving forward.”
The Chippewas open up their 2013 season at the University of Michigan on Aug. 31 and will host New Hampshire before traveling to North Carolina State and UNLV. The MAC schedule is due to be released soon.