DETROIT (AP) — Coaching Western Kentucky for one game before moving on to an uncertain future, Lance Guidry had to make a crucial decision with the game on the line.
Fourth down, 51 seconds remaining. Kick a field goal and play for overtime, or go for the win?
“That was all the players. We were going to kick the field goal, but they told me that they were here to win the game,” Guidry said. “I asked everyone and they wanted to go for it so we took the chance.”
The Hilltoppers went for it and the move backfired when Kawaun Jakes threw incomplete on fourth-and-2 from the 19-yard line, giving Central Michigan a 24-21 win Wednesday night in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. Even so, there was little regret afterward.
“I’m going to get back to my family, because I haven’t seen them in a while,” Guidry said. “Then I’m off to the coaches’ convention to try to find a job.”
Guidry was Western Kentucky’s defensive coordinator, but he was put in charge on an interim basis for this bowl after coach Willie Taggart left to take over the program at South Florida. Next season, Bobby Petrino will coach the Hilltoppers.
The finish to this game – Western Kentucky’s first bowl since joining college football’s top tier in 2009 – won’t be forgotten any time soon. Ryan Radcliff had thrown an 11-yard touchdown pass to Cody Wilson with 5:11 remaining to give Central Michigan (7-6) the lead, but the Hilltoppers (7-6) drove back down the field until their chances ended when Jakes’ pass intended for Jack Doyle fell incomplete.
“I don’t know what I would have done,” Central Michigan coach Dan Enos said. “But I will never second-guess a coach for trying to win.”
Radcliff went 19 of 29 for 253 yards and three touchdowns, but Central Michigan needed to rally late.
Down 21-17, Zurlon Tipton appeared to have put the Chippewas ahead in the fourth quarter, but his fourth-down run was ruled short of the goal line after a review.
“When we didn’t get the touchdown, we knew we had to stop them right there,” linebacker Shamari Benton said. “We knew that we just needed to give the offense one more shot.”
Central Michigan forced the Hilltoppers to punt from their own end zone, and Avery Cunningham partially blocked it. Although the ball bounced around for a bit, the Chippewas finally secured it and took over with great field position inside the 30.
Radcliff found Wilson in the back left corner of the end zone for a 24-21 lead.
Petrino, the Hilltoppers’ coach-in-waiting, was expected to be at Ford Field watching his new team, but a snowstorm forced him to scrap those plans. Western Kentucky started aggressively.
Down 7-0, the Hilltoppers ran a flea-flicker on their first play from scrimmage, with Antonio Andrews running to his right, then tossing the ball back to Jakes, who found Rico Brown for a 70-yard gain.
Two plays later, Jakes scored on a 6-yard run to tie it.
Central Michigan answered with a 73-yard drive that ended with Andrew Flory’s 29-yard touchdown reception, his second of the quarter.
David Harman’s 50-yard field goal put the Chippewas up 17-7, but Jakes threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Doyle, with the tight end making a one-handed catch to pull Western Kentucky within three.
Harman had a field goal blocked later in the half, and although the Chippewas were in range for another attempt in the final minute, Radcliff was sacked and fumbled. He was able to recover, but the last few seconds of the half ticked off.
Western Kentucky took a 21-17 lead in the third on a 1-yard scoring run by Kadeem Jones, which capped an 80-yard drive that used 9:23.
Andrews rushed for 119 yards, but he fell short of the 274 all-purpose yards he needed to break the single-season record of 3,250 set by Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders in 1988. Andrews, a junior, had 184 all-purpose yards to finish the season at 3,161.
“I fell short this year, but I’ll be going for that record again next year,” he said.
Central Michigan took a 7-0 lead on a 69-yard touchdown pass from Radcliff to Flory. Western Kentucky safety Jonathan Dowling whiffed on a tackle near midfield, and Flory was gone.
Dowling had a chance to make up for that mistake early in the third quarter, but with his team down 17-14, he dropped an interception near midfield that he could have easily returned for a touchdown.