The high powered Western Kentucky Hilltoppers offence performed as good as advertised and in the end it was enough to withstand a frantic rally from the Central Michigan Chippewas en route to the inaugural Popeyes Bahamas Bowl title.
The Hilltoppers scored on all six of their possessions in the first half in their 49-48 Christmas Eve win over the Chippewas at the Thomas A Robinson Stadium.
WKU quarterback Brandon Doughty finished 31-42 for 486 yards and five touchdowns.
Each of his touchdown passes came in the first half, when the Hilltoppers built a big enough lead to withstand a furious second half Chippewas rally.
They took a 49-14 lead into the fourth quarter before the Chippewas rallied behind Cooper Rush and his NCAA bowl game record setting seven touchdown passes.
Rush finished 28-45 for 485 yards.
Trailing 49-42 with one second left to play, Rush completed a Hail Mary to Jesse Kroll and after a series of laterals, the ball found its way into the hands of Titus Davis who dove to the pylon for the game’s tying touchdown.
The Chippewas elected to go for two and the win, however the pass fell to the turf incomplete.
“It was the almost the ‘Nassau City’ miracle there for a moment, but we were one play away,” Central Michigan head coach Dan Enos said. His team trailed 42-14 at the half, but said they remained self motivated at the half.
“Dan Enos doesn’t quit and as long as I’m the head coach of this team they’re not going to quit. There wasn’t a lot of shouting at each other and arguing, I challenged the players but the guys challenged them selves. They’re a proud group, they know they’re a very talented football team and they were embarrassed by the way they came out and performed in that first half. I’m proud of the way the guys came out and fought.”
Hilltoppers head coach Jeff Brohm said it was a fitting way for his team to end a season of thrilling finishes.
“It was an exciting football game for the fans and I’m happy for our guys,” he said, “That’s been the story of our season and nearly all of our games have been like that. There have been alot of twists and turns to our games and there were to this one as well, but we remained resilient. This was a team that was sitting at 3-5 at one point in the season so I’m proud of the way they were able to fight back and really turn things around.”
In the first half, Western Kentucky’s offence got virtually everything they wanted and seemed on pace for a blowout. Brohm completed 4-5 passes on the opening drive, including a 14 yard touchdown pass to Jared Dangerfield.
The Chippewas responded immediately with a touchdown pass of their own when Davis caught a 22 yarder to tie the game at seven.
Doughty completed touchdown passes to Joel German and Antwane Grant to take a 21-7 lead at the end of the first quarter. Hilltopers responded with a ground game that gained two first downs until Doughty connected with Joel German for a 12 yard score.
After a defensive stop, the Hilltoppers offence kept moving in the second quarter with another Doughty touchdown pass, this time to Mitchell Henry for 16 yards and a 28-7 lead.
Rush kept the Central Michigan hopes alive on the ensuing drive with a 23 yard third down scramble and then completed 35 touchdown pass to Courtney Williams to make the score 28-14.
The momentum would be short lived as Doughty hit Willie McNeal wiith a 55 yard strike and a 35-14 lead.
After the first punt of the game, with less than a minute to play in the half, the Tops’ offense didn’t slow down as Doughty connected on a 55 yard completion to Dangerfield to get into the redzone
Doughty had a touchdown run overruled, and on fourth and goal Leon Allen ran it in from a yard out to take a 42-14 lead at the half.
“We got a little conservative and a little relaxed in the second half, it became one of those grind out halves that’s not really the pace we set for the game,” Doughty said, “We let a few go early in the season that way so we have to fix that going forward.”
In the second half, the Hilltoppers suffered their first gaffe on offense when Anthony Wales coughed up a fumble.
The Hilltoppers defence would force another punt and Wales would make up for the previous play with a 21 yard touchdown run to make the score 49-14.
WKU suffered only their second empty offensive possession of the game when Garett Schwettmann missed a field goal from and the score remained 49-14 headed into the fourth.
The fourth quarter was all Chippewas as Rush through five of his record setting touchdown passes in the period.
“We just tried to take it one play at a time, to chip away at it and we found ourselves with a chance to win the game there at the end,” he said, “It was good to complete all those passes, score all those touchdowns but we came up one short.”
Rush and Davis connected for two touchdowns within the first four minutes to trim the deficit 49-28.
WKU looked to answer when Willie McNeal appeared well on his way to his second touchdown of the day, but he attempted to juke a defender near the goal line and fumbled. Central Michigan’s Kevin King recovered and returned the fumble 36 yards.
Rush would capitlise with a 10 yard touchdown pass to Courtney Willaims, to make the score 49-35 at the 3:06 mark in the quarter. He followed with a seven yard touchdown pass to Anthony Garland, to come within a single score for the first time since early in the first quarter, 49-42 with just 1:09 left to play.
WKU freshman defensive end Derik Overstreet was named the Defensive Player of the Game.
He finished with five tackles and two sacks, but it was the offences of both teams that took centre stage with record setting performances.
The teams combined for 971 yards and 12 touchdowns, both new NCAA FBS bowl game records and finished with a combined total of 1254 yards, second all time.