W. Kentucky-Cent. Michigan Preview
To replace the man who seemingly built it all at the FBS level for Western Kentucky, the school chose the man who lost everything only eight months ago.
After making the most controversial hire in the annual coaching carousel by giving Bobby Petrino another chance, the Hilltoppers try to cap a successful season with a victory in their first bowl appearance Wednesday night in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl against Central Michigan.
Petrino's predecessor, Willie Taggart, was an institution at Western Kentucky. A former Hilltoppers quarterback under Jack Harbaugh - the father of 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and Ravens coach John Harbaugh - Taggart was part of the staff that won the 2002 FCS title before leaving with Jim Harbaugh in 2007 to be running backs coach at Stanford.
His alma mater beckoned again as Western Kentucky endured growing pains in its transition to the FBS - the school was 0-12 in its first season in the Sun Belt Conference in 2009 and 2-10 in Taggart's first season as head coach in 2010. His persistence and recruiting paid off, though, as the Hilltoppers have gone 7-5 each of the last two years, culminating in this trip to Detroit.
"He did a tremendous job for Western Kentucky - inheriting a program with a 20-game losing streak before posting back-to-back 7-5 records in his second and third seasons," athletic director Todd Stewart said after Taggart's departure to South Florida on Dec. 8. "You cannot overstate the positive impact he had on our football program, athletic department and university."
Taggart left despite an offer Stewart said would have made him the highest-paid coach in the Sun Belt. Two days later, Stewart made the bold move of hiring Petrino, who was fired by Arkansas last spring after a scandal that unfolded following a motorcycle accident.
His passenger during the crash was his mistress, a former volleyball player at the school whom he had given $20,000 in gifts and a job as a football assistant.
"I'm going to be able to sit down with mom and dad and the student-athlete and make them understand how this experience has made me a better coach, a better person and will make me understand their son better," Petrino said during a packed news conference at Houchens-Smith Stadium.
For this game, defensive coordinator Lance Guidry will be calling plays. Guidry is making his second appearance as an interim coach in a bowl after leading Miami (Ohio) to a victory in the 2011 GoDaddy.com Bowl following Mike Haywood's departure to coach Pittsburgh.
Guidry's defense had three players earn all-conference first-team nods, but the anchor of that unit - Sun Belt defensive player of the year and defensive end Quanterus Smith - is out due to a knee injury suffered Nov. 17 against Louisiana-Lafayette. He had an FBS-leading 1.25 sacks per game and 12 1/2 overall in 10 games.
Western Kentucky led the conference with 31 sacks and was 12th among FBS teams with 7.42 tackles for loss per game.
Offensively, running back Antonio Andrews will get plenty of touches as he makes a bid to set a single-season NCAA record for all-purpose yards. Andrews, who rushed for 1,609 yards and 11 touchdowns, also has 957 return yards and 2,977 overall. The junior needs 274 yards to surpass Barry Sanders' mark of 3,250 from his 1988 Heisman Trophy-winning season.
Central Michigan (6-6) finished fourth in the West Division of the Mid-American Conference and only became bowl eligible by closing the season with victories over Eastern Michigan, Miami (Ohio) and Massachusetts, which had a combined seven wins among them. The Chippewas are making their fourth appearance in this bowl, winning one out of three from 2006-08 when it was known as the Motor City Bowl.
"Central Michigan has a great tradition with this bowl," athletic director Dave Heeke said. "We are thrilled to be back in Detroit for a bowl game."
Third-year coach Dan Enos is hoping it will be a springboard for better things to come after his team improved following back-to-back 3-9 seasons in 2010 and 2011. The Chippewas found their stride offensively in the second half of the season, scoring at least 30 points in each of their final six games, and the defense showed signs of improvement after yielding an average of 39.4 points during a 2-5 start.
The Chippewas also feature a standout running back in Zurlon Tipton, who amassed 1,391 yards and 19 rushing TDs while averaging 6.1 yards per carry. Tipton needs two touchdowns on the ground to better Brian Pruitt's single-season school record of 20 set in 1994.