Cent. Michigan-Minnesota Preview
The Golden Gophers look to take that first step at Ford Field versus the Chippewas.
One of three teams among the 80 participating in a bowl game with a losing record due to a lack of FBS schools with winning records, Minnesota's on-field inconsistency took a back seat to its off-field adversity, none greater than the emotional Oct. 28 announcement in which coach Jerry Kill was forced to retire.
The recurrence of his epilepsy, which caused traumatic moments on the sideline and off the field during his five seasons leading the Golden Gophers (5-7) had taken too high a toll, his tears and quivering voice in announcing his decision resonating throughout a program he brought to a New Year's Day bowl last season.
"You're so sad, because there's never going to be another day when you're going to go out to practice and you'll have coach Kill behind you,'' quarterback Mitch Leidner said the day Kill retired.
Losses to Michigan and Ohio State - both ranked at the time - followed before the Gophers dropped the interim tag from Tracy Claeys on Nov. 11 and signed him to a three-year contract. Claeys, who had been an assistant under Kill for 21 seasons and went 4-3 as head coach in 2013 when his predecessor was treated following a bout with epilepsy, has gone just 1-4 since taking the top spot this time around.
Claeys, though, praised the character of his players - citing his team's academic growth since its APR was the criterion for being selected to play in a bowl and is grateful to play one more game.
"I think this group deserves the chance to have the opportunity to finish out the season on a wind with everything we've been through," Claeys said earlier this month. "The seniors, they're the ones who set that attitude in the classroom and it's good to see our kids get rewarded for changing that attitude in the classroom."
That character is also evident in senior punter and holder Peter Mortell, whose off-beat "Holder of the Year" Twitter campaign drew a following he parlayed into a "Very Specialist Christmas" fundraising partnership with the University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital that drew national attention after raising more than $20,000 in less than a week after being announced.
Leidner will have a chance to set a foundation for his senior year, entering this game with career highs of 2,478 yards and 13 touchdown passes. His 218 completions rank third in school history for a single season, and the junior is eager to take advantage of the second chance circumstances have dictated.
"That's what Coach Claeys has told us in the team meetings, it's a great opportunity to send the seniors out on a high note and something to keep building in the offseason. That gives us motivation to play hard and work for next season."
Youth will also be served in the Gophers' backfield, where freshmen Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith combined for 1,240 rushing yards and nine touchdowns.
Central Michigan (7-5) is appearing in its second straight bowl game and seeking its first eight-win season since going 12-2 in 2009. It will be a short drive downstate from Mount Pleasant to Detroit for the Chippewas, who are eager to match up with a Big Ten school.
"I think it's a big help from a confidence standpoint," first-year coach John Bonamego told the school's official website. "I think our guys feel like we can play with anybody and they've demonstrated that this year. This is another opportunity to go toe-to-toe with a Power 5 opponent and show that we belong in Division I.
Junior quarterback Cooper Rush enjoyed a strong season for the Chippewas, finishing second in the Mid-American Conference with 3,703 yards and third with 25 TD passes. He spread the wealth as five players had at least 33 receptions and 500 yards, paced by Jesse Kroll's 59 catches and 856 yards.
"We're not looking at their record," Kroll said of the Gophers. "We want to play the best competition. We wouldn't want it any other way. Any time we get a chance to play a Power Five team, we get pretty excited about that."
It's the fourth straight year Minnesota will be in a bowl game, but it's out to snap a seven-game postseason losing streak since a 20-16 victory over Alabama in the 2004 Music City Bowl.