Courtesy: Tim Fitzgerald/CMU Athletics
Senior Cody Wilson celebrates the victory over Western Kentucky with linebacker coach Kyle Nystrom.
Chippewas Are Little Caesars Pizza Bowl Champions
DETROIT – Quarterback Ryan Radcliff threw a perfect strike to senior receiver Cody Wilson midway through the fourth quarter and Central Michigan’s defense got a late fourth down stop to lead the Chippewas to a 24-21 victory over Western Kentucky (7-6) to win the 2012 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.

The victory is CMU’s third in a bowl game and its first in this bowl since 2006. The Chippewas have won two straight bowl games after capturing the 2010 GMAC bowl title and up their mark in Detroit bowl games to 2-2.

Radcliff was named the game’s Most Valuable Player while junior linebacker Shamari Benton was named the Outstanding Lineman. Benton led CMU in tackles for the seventh time this season, recording nine.

The winning touchdown came on a second and goal with 5:11 left in the game. Radcliff threaded the needle between two WKU defenders to find Wilson in the corner of the end zone. The senior signal caller finished the game 19-of-29 for 253 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions while Wilson had 10 catches for 101 yards and the one touchdown.

After CMU scored, the Hilltoppers drove the ball down to the CMU 19-yard line where they faced a fourth and two with 51 seconds remaining. Western Kentucky ran a play-action pass to tight end Jack Doyle, but he was blanketed by CMU defenders and the pass fell incomplete. CMU then ran out the clock to secure the victory.

CMU’s winning touchdown drive began at the WKU 26-yard line after a blocked punt by junior safety Avery Cunningham. The blocked punt capped off a string of controversial plays that began with a reversal of a Zurlon Tipton touchdown. The officials first ruled that Tipton had scored on a one-yard drive on fourth down but the replay official reversed the call. That gave the Hilltoppers the ball at the CMU half-yard line. CMU’s defense tightened up, allowing just two yards to force a three-and-out. Cunningham blocked the punt after a low snap and the Chippewas were in business.

Central Michigan (7-6) got off to a fast start after Radcliff connected on a 69-yard touchdown strike to redshirt freshman receiver Andrew Flory at 10:54 of the first quarter. Western Kentucky answered with a six-yard quarterback run by Kawaun Jakes after he connected with Rico Brown for 70 yards on a trick play on the first offensive play of the game for the Hilltoppers.

CMU responded with another Radcliff-to-Flory touchdown connection, this time from 29 yards out with 5:46 to go in the first quarter. After three straight punts, CMU got the running game going as Tipton had 40 yards on a drive that led to a 50-yard Davis Harman field goal, making it 17-7 CMU. The field goal set the CMU bowl record and tied the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl mark.

The Hilltoppers answered with a touchdown midway through the second quarter on a six-yard pass from Jakes to Doyle. CMU was unable to extend its led before half as a 46-yard field goal attempt by Harman was blocked.

Western Kentucky took its first lead of the game in the third quarter on a 16-play, 80-yard drive that lasted 9:23. The capper was a Kadeem Jones one-yard rush, which was upheld upon review after it appeared he may he fumbled the ball before crossing the goaline. That score made the game 21-17 and it stayed that way until Wilson’s decisive touchdown.

CMU’s special teams played an important part in the victory. Junior punter Richie Hogan averaged 57.3 yards per punt including a bowl-record 82-yard boot in the first quarter. CMU also limited WKU’s Antonio Andrews to just 40 kick return yards and four yards on punt returns. Andrews entered the game leading the FBS in all-purpose yards and was within reach to break Barry Sanders’ NCAA record all-purpose yards nbut was held short of the record by CMU.

Tipton recorded his seventh-straight game with 100 yards rushing as he finished with 101 yards on 23 carries. Flory joined Wilson with 100 yards receiving as he had three catches for 105 yards.

Central Michigan finished the 2012 season with four consecutive wins, including three to end the regular season to become bowl eligible.