Western Kentucky vs. Central Michigan, 2012 Pizza Bowl preview: Hilltoppers running wild?

Mark Zerof-US PRESSWIRE

A late-season funk ended WKU's Sun Belt title bid, but the Hilltoppers could find plenty of running room against a pretty poor CMU defense. Little Caesars Pizza Bowl pick, players to watch and more below. Dec. 26, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN.

5 Players To Watch

Jahleel Addae (SS, CMU, Sr.). At 5'11, 200 pounds, Addae is far from an imposing presence. But if CMU's defense makes a big play (and really, they don't do so very often), it will probably be Addae making it. He has seven tackles for loss (two sacks), four interceptions and four passes broken up. For a defense with only 47 tackles for loss, 17 sacks and two forced fumbles, that is a pretty big deal. CMU's defense is easily the weakest unit in this game, coming in at 110th in Def. F/+ (120th on standard downs), and while WKU's offense is not the strongest around, it is good enough to move the ball all game unless the Chippewas make some big plays along the way. Paging Mr. Addae...

Antonio Andrews (RB, WKU, Jr.). The short, but incredibly successful, Willie Taggart era at WKU -- the former WKU quarterback inherited an 0-12 team, went 2-10 in his first season, then won 14 in the next two before taking the South Florida job in December -- was defined mostly by toughness, discipline and a wonderfully prolific running back. Bobby Rainey rushed for 3,344 yards in two years under Taggart, and in Rainey's absence, Andrews did a near-perfect Rainey impression. He rushed for 1,609 yards (5.8 per carry) and 11 touchdowns and caught 34 passes for 411 yards (and three scores) along the way. CMU's run defense has been dreadful in 2012; if they can't slow Andrews down, nothing else matters.

Andrew Jackson (MLB, WKU, Jr.) and Quanterus Smith (DE, WKU, Sr.). As good as Andrews has been, WKU's defense has carried the Hilltoppers for wide swaths of 2012. WKU ranks 57th in Def. F/+ (45th against the run, 41st on passing downs) and plays a particularly aggressive 4-3 style. The 'Toppers logged 90 tackles for loss, 31 sacks, 52 passes defensed and 13 forced fumbles, and Jackson and Smith were the primary playmakers. Their combined stat line: 129.0 tackles (mostly from Jackson), 36.0 tackles for loss, 14.5 sacks (mostly from Smith), seven forced fumbles. They are devastating, and CMU will have to account for each of them on every play.

Zurlon Tipton (RB, CMU, Jr.). The MAC was full of prolific runners in 2012, from quarterback Jordan Lynch (Northern Illinois) to running backs Dri Archer (Kent State), Beau Blankenship (Ohio), Dareyon Chance (Western Michigan), Jawon Chisholm (Akron), Trayion Durham (Kent State), Jahwan Edwards (Ball State), David Fluellen (Toledo), Bronson Hill (Eastern Michigan), and Anthon Samuel (Bowling Green). Tipton was third among these running backs with 1,396 yards and 19 touchdowns; he threw in 22 catches for 258 yards for good measure. Andrews and Tipton are remarkably similar to the eye (6'0, 211 pounds versus 6'1, 219), and while Tipton will face a better defense than Andrews, his success is vital to a Chippewa upset.

4 Reasons To Watch

1. You enjoy contrasts in styles, right? Western Kentucky runs two-thirds of the time on standard downs (24th-most in the country) and over one-third of the time on passing downs (34th). The Hilltoppers are, for the most part, powerful and conservative. CMU, meanwhile, attempts balance on standard downs (they run 59 percent of the time, 64th in the country) but puts the ball in quarterback Ryan Radcliff's hands and tells him to make a play on passing downs (they run 23 percent on passing downs, 115th). CMU is comfortable throwing the ball a lot, though with Tipton they are a bit better on the ground. Regardless, these two teams go about offense in completely different ways. That's fun, right?

2. WKU is about to get a lot of attention. The Hilltoppers came out of nowhere under Willie Taggart, but when a program loses its savior to a bigger school, the odds of falling back to the pack (or further) are typically high. At least, those odds are high when you don't hire Bobby Petrino. Whether he is there for one year or (far less likely) the rest of his career, Petrino is going to generate both attention and offense. Starting quarterback Kawaun Jakes and steady tight end Jack Doyle are both seniors, but you should probably get to know names like Andrews, sophomore receiver Willie McNeal (506 receiving yards, 7.4 per target, 59 percent catch rate) and perhaps sophomore receiver Rico Brown (124 yards, 6.9 per target, 67 percent catch rate). They are probably going to have good seasons next year.

3. MACtion. Central Michigan scored at least 30 points in nine of 12 games and allowed at least 30 points in eight. WKU hasn't scored over 30 points since October 20, but against the CMU defense the Hilltoppers should find the going pretty easy. In other words, this game has solid MACtion potential. And you don't want to miss it if craziness breaks out.

4. Bonus football. Bonus football!

3 Key Factors

1. Stop Andrews. Western Kentucky is pretty efficient through the air, but the Hilltoppers get their explosiveness from Andrews, and they will run him all day if CMU cannot stop him. And make no mistake: CMU doesn't stop many running backs. If the Chippewas cannot force WKU to go to the air a bit (mostly to tight ends and fullbacks) and tackle well, they probably aren't going to make enough stops. Slow Andrews down, and you'll give yourself a chance.

2. First-and-10. Not surprisingly, an offense like WKU's does not necessarily function well on second- or third-and-long. The Hilltoppers are conservative and mostly ineffective on passing downs. CMU must minimize first-down yardage, but there is no guarantee that it can. Meanwhile, when the Chippewas are on offense, they will have a decent opportunity to move the ball on standard downs, but WKU's is a very good passing downs defense. In other words, monitor average first-down yardage, and you will probably figure out who is going to win.

3. Which version of which team? If this game were taking place in late-September, I would pick WKU by about three touchdowns. The Hilltoppers were the far superior team over the first half of the season; they began the season 6-2, with losses to only Alabama and Arkansas conqueror UL-Monroe (by one point in overtime). Meanwhile, CMU was half-dreadful, beginning the season 2-5 with losses to Michigan State, Northern Illinois, Toledo, Navy and Ball State by an average of 22 points. Basically only an upset of Iowa, if it was possible to "upset" Iowa this year, kept bowl dreams afloat.

But both teams' seasons took rather unexpected turns. CMU got hot once the competition eased up (funny how that works), going 4-1 to finish the season with double-digit wins over Akron, Miami (Ohio) and UMass and a tight win over Eastern Michigan. Meanwhile, WKU lost its mojo. After the home loss to UL-Monroe, the Hilltoppers also lost at home to Middle Tennessee and, shockingly, Florida Atlantic, then fell in a tight one at UL-Lafayette (31-27). They also needed late heroics (scoring twice in the final eight minutes) to beat North Texas, 25-24, in the season finale. That win locked down the program's first ever bowl bid, but WKU did not finish the season well at all.

That said, the bowl break ends any momentum, good or bad. Which version of which team shows up at Ford Field on Wednesday?

2 Predictions

F/+ Pick: WKU by 11.4.
Bill's Pick: WKU by 8. Despite homefield advantage for CMU, the Hilltoppers are still the superior team -- and if Andrews gets rolling, they could win by a large margin (CMU's defense is really not good at all) -- but I don't trust that their late-season woes are behind them.

1 Shutdown Fullback

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