College football in Michigan in November can be a tenuous thing. Temperatures fall fast, the snow can fall faster, and if your college team is having a rough year, your fan base quickly stops showing up to games. For the Central Michigan University campus in Mount Pleasant, none of these would prove true the morning of November 3rd, 2012. The skies were clear, the temperature was brisk but bearable, and despite another rebuilding year, nobody was going to miss CMU take on "that school from Kalamazoo" at home.
CMU came into rivalry weekend at 3-5, and quite a few in the fan base was once again calling for Dan Enos to be fired after a poor start to conference play. Many more, however, were waiting to see if Enos could avenge 2011's shellacking against Western Michigan in Kalamazoo. The Chippewas had been embarrassed from start to finish, losing 44-14 in a pathetic all around effort which snapped a five game win streak against Western. Bill Cubit and WMU had struggled as well in 2012, and it was felt that an experienced CMU team would have a good chance to turn their season around with a strong victory against their hated rival.
The first half featured the chess match many had expected. After sputtering in the first quarter, Western's offense opened up a bit in the second, with Tyler Van Tubbergen exploiting Central's weak pass defense for two touchdowns. Van Tubbergen, however, made an incredible mistake in his own end zone while trying to avoid a safety, throwing up a jump ball that was intercepted by Shamari Benton. CMU's first touchdown came a few plays later in the form of bruising running back Zurlon Tipton. CMU's offense, led by Senior QB Ryan Radcliff, had several long drives throughout the half, but were unable to convert any of them into touchdowns. Western took a slim 14-13 lead in the half.
The third quarter was a shining moment for the 2012 CMU football squad. CMU's beleaguered defense held Western to three punts, and a Radcliff bomb to Titus Davis gave CMU a 9 point lead at the end of the third. Sensing a victory, the fans at Kelly/Shorts Stadium stuck around to see the game to the end, with no idea of the peril that was forthcoming.
It's difficult to ascertain what changed between the third and fourth quarter. Perhaps Bill Cubit and his staff had suddenly discovered a fatal flaw in CMU's defense. Perhaps a single mistake for the Chippewa secondary led to a loss of composure and a complete unraveling. Whatever the case, the fourth quarter would go down as one of its greatest defensive collapses in CMU football history.
In order to understand just how badly the fourth quarter went for CMU, it helps to view the play-by-play for that quarter. The CMU faithful on hand watched helplessly as Tyler Van Tubbergen suddenly turned into Peyton Manning, with WMU receiver Eric Monette a notable beneficiary. A quick three play drive brought Western within a score. On their ensuing possession, the Broncos drove 98 yards in just over three and a half minutes on a drive that featured an absolute defensive meltdown from CMU, including blown coverage, porous run defense, and a particularly costly personal foul call on Justin Cherocci.
The CMU offense responded to the call to action. Radcliff, helped by Tipton, marched the Chippewas quickly down the field and allowed CMU to retake the lead once more. However, CMU's new lead would be short lived, as Van Tubbergen continued to play pitch and catch with Monette for four more receptions and a score. On the ensuing kickoff, a long Courtney Williams return suddenly turned into a Courtney Williams fumble and turnover. Desperately needing a stop, CMU instead gave up a quick score to WMU's Daryeon Chance, sealing the comeback victory for the Broncos and dropping CMU's record to a bleak 3-6.
The real tragedy of the game was how well the defense had played before the 4th quarter. The unit had been in the midst of a rough season, and it was nice to see them come out and play up to the challenge of a rivalry game. All of that changed during the fourth quarter. Tackling went by the wayside, the pass rush on Van Tubbergen evaporated, and on nearly every pass play, there was a Bronco receiver with a couple of steps on a Chippewa defender. Bill Cubit could have called any play and would have found success. For the CMU defense, it was the fifth time on the year that they had given up over 40 points.
The immediate fallout from the game was predictable. CM-Life, CMU's student newspaper, called for the firing of Dan Enos. Others called for the head of Athletic Director Dave Heeke, who had hired Enos almost three years prior. Fan interest in the program reached a new low two weeks later, when a game against the Miami Redhawks drew just over 7,000 people to the stadium. In Kalamazoo, the Broncos celebrated a great comeback victory of their hated rival, and looked to finish the season strong. For both teams, however, fortunes were about to change.
Western's great victory against the Chippewas would be Bill Cubit's last. Poor showings against Buffalo and Eastern Michigan over the next couple weeks gave Western a 4-8 record on the year, leading to Cubit's firing immediately following the season. One month later, WMU would turn the reins of the football program over to P.J Fleck, a young upstart assistant coach and a renowned oarsman. Thus began a new era in Bronco football.
For Dan Enos and company, redemption was at hand. The Chippewas would win three straight games to reach bowl eligibility. A strange decision by Louisiana Tech to refuse their bowl bid allowed the dominoes to fall and Central to earn an invitation to the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Detroit, where they defeated Western Kentucky for their first bowl victory since 2009. Enos, just several weeks away from nearly being fired, was rewarded with his second contract extension in two years.