Video report from Kennedy Hardman:
By Wiley Ballard
NASSAU, Bahamas – WKU survived a furious Central Michigan fourth-quarter comeback, which included a 75-yard last-gasp relay play for a touchdown as time expired, but a broken-up 2-point conversion attempt following the improbable TD gave the Hilltoppers a 49-48 victory and the inaugural Popeyes Bahamas Bowl title.
In a stadium that has hosted major international track meets, the four-person relay by the Chippewas was as exciting as any seen on the Thomas A. Robinson National Stadium surface and was an immediate hit on ESPN.
But, the Hilltoppers finally put an end to CMU’s 34-point fourth quarter with a defensive stop in the back corner of the end zone that brought a celebration and relief from the WKU sideline.
“It was the Nassau City Miracle, almost.”
That was how Central Michigan head coach Dan Enos described the final sequence on Wednesday afternoon.
Trailing 49-42, Central Michigan forced a WKU punt that trickled into the end zone with just one second remaining. Faced with 75 yards of Bahamian grass in front of them, the Central Michigan offense lined up for one final prayer.
It was answered.
Sophomore quarterback Cooper Rush heaved one last gasp pass 47 yards down the field where it was caught by redshirt-junior Jesse Kroll at the Hilltopper 28. Then chaos ensued. After three laterals from Kroll, Deon Butler and Courtney Williams, the all-time Chippewa leader in receiving yards and touchdowns, Titus Davis, grazed the pylon – launching an entire stadium into pandemonium.
With the WKU lead trimmed to an unimaginably thin 49-48, Enos and the Chippewas threw caution to the wind and tried for two in hopes of winning the game right then and there. Rush opted for Kroll again on the attempt, but WKU defensive back Wonderful Terry had the fade route played perfectly and broke up the pass. And just like that, WKU had their first FBS bowl win in school history under first-year head coach Jeff Brohm.
Following the game, Brohm reiterated the importance of the win and commended his players. “To get this first bowl victory for our school is big. We can build upon this,” he emphasized. “We were sitting at 3-5 at one point in our season, and to find a way to reel off five straight victories is a testament to our players, our university and the leadership we have.”
The win not only gives WKU (8-6) its first bowl championship, but also marks the second-consecutive season of eight or more victories. The Hilltoppers hadn’t had back-to-back eight-win seasons since 2004 and have never accomplished that feat at the FBS level.
With the loss, Central Michigan finished 7-6, and the Chippewas are 3-5 all-time in bowl games. CMU has been bowl eligible for three consecutive seasons and seven of the last nine.
After the game, Enos spoke about the decision to go for two. “We didn’t want to go to overtime because we had had trouble stopping them all day,” explained Enos. “I looked at the players and said, ‘What do you got?’ and they said, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s win this game.’”
Popeyes Bahamas Bowl Player of the Game honors went to WKU’s Doughty (offense) and WKU defensive end Derik Overstreet (defense). Doughty threw for 486 yards and five touchdowns with all five scores coming in the first half. Doughty’s NCAA-leading season passing totals now sit at 4,830 yards and 49 touchdowns. Overstreet, a true freshman, recorded five tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss that included two second-half sacks.
Before the nightmarish fourth quarter, the Hilltoppers played as crisp and dominant a game as they had all season long.
The Hilltoppers cruised behind the arm of Conference USA MVP Brandon Doughty. In the first half alone, Doughty threw for 350 yards and five touchdowns – each of which was to a different receiver. WKU scored touchdowns on each of their six first-half possessions against the MAC’s top defense, including twice in the final two minutes.
The Hilltoppers defensive unit, on the other hand, kept the Chippewas in check through the first three quarters. After scoring on their opening drive, Central Michigan squandered two red zone trips with an interception and a fourth-and-1 sputter. The Chippewas did construct a seven-minute touchdown drive in the second quarter, but ultimately couldn’t match WKU’s first-half production and entered the break trailing 42-14.
The second half was a day-and-night difference.
After six first-half touchdowns, the Hilltoppers mustered just one second-half score set up by a poor punt and starting field position at Central Michigan’s 21-yard line early in the third quarter. At the start of the fourth quarter, it seemed that WKU, armed with a 49-14 lead, would coast to the victory.
That was anything but what happened next.
Rush connected with senior wide receiver Davis for touchdowns twice in the quarter’s opening minutes to cut WKU’s lead to 49-28. Then defensive end Joe Ostman flipped a 52-yard completion to WKU’s Willie McNeil inside out by forcing a fumble as McNeil raced down the sideline to the Central Michigan 13. At which point, Chippewa corner Tony Annese scooped up the loose ball and returned it all the way back to the CMU 36-yard line. The Chippewas marched down the field and scored again, this time on a pass from Rush to Courtney Williams, creeping to within 14 points.
Even then, Central Michigan didn’t get their hands back on the ball until there were just two minutes remaining. But the red-hot Chippewas and Cooper Rush needed just four plays and 55 seconds to find the end zone again on a seven-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Garland to trim the margin to 49-42.
WKU successfully combatted the ensuing CMU onside kick with a clean recovery and just 1:09 remaining. The Chippewas used their two remaining timeouts to stop the clock, but WKU’s offense milked the clock down to 10 seconds before being forced to punt. Joseph Occhipinti’s punt, nearly downed at the CMU 1, teetered into the end zone for a touchback with just one second remaining setting up what was to follow.
In the fourth-quarter frenzy, Cooper Rush went 13-for-17 for 255 yards and five touchdowns. His five fourth-quarter scores, along with his two in the first half, set a new FBS record for passing touchdowns in a bowl game with seven. The previous record of six was held by Washington State’s Connor Halliday (2013 New Mexico Bowl), West Virginia’s Geno Smith (2012 Orange Bowl) and Iowa’s Chuck Long (1984 Freedom Bowl).
The 971 combined passing yards between Doughty and Rush also set a new FBS bowl record surpassing the 2001 Silicon Valley Bowl when Michigan State and Fresno State threw for 907 yards. The two quarterbacks also combined for 12 touchdowns which broke the previous FBS bowl record set by Bowling Green and Memphis in the 2004 GMAC Bowl.
With WKU’s defeat of Central Michigan, the inaugural Popeyes Bahamas Bowl and its’ week-long celebratory debut has come to an end. From the festivities to the community-service events, from the Atlantis Bahamas resort to the gridiron dramatics, perhaps Enos said it best, “I’ve never been a part of anything like that.”