After a season of significant ups and downs, the Chippewas find themselves in a bowl game for the second straight season in John Bonamego's inaugural season as the head coach in Mt. Pleasant. At 7-5, Central Michigan has a chance to finish with eight wins for the first time since 2009. In the Quick Lane Bowl, the Chippewas will play the Minnesota Gophers (5-7, 2-6 Big Ten). We asked Mark Mowery, writer at The Daily Gopher, SB Nation's Minnesota blog, some questions about the upcoming match-up at Ford Field.
Hustle Belt: Many are skeptical of Minnesota even being in a bowl game. What do you say to those who don't think a team with a losing record shouldn't be in a bowl game?
I would probably agree with them. It is saddening to see how many bowl games there are now and even more saddening that not enough Division I teams can get to 6 wins to avoid 5-win teams such as Minnesota going to bowl games. But, it is what it is and I am glad the Gophers are going to get some extra practices and they get to enjoy all the activities that accompany a bowl game. Bowls, outside of a select few, are meaningless exhibitions. But I don't mind getting see this particular Gophers' squad get one more chance at a W.
What was the initial reaction of Gopher fans to the pairing of their team with Central Michigan?
I think it was some slight disappointment due to the fact that they are not a Big 5 conference team. But after thinking about it, I think people were excited to get the chance to play another team that seems like they want to prove themselves. Personally, I'm pretty confident the MAC is no longer anything to sneeze at. So this match up is about as good as one could expect when the Gophers only finished with 5 wins.
After further examination of the match-up, has your opinion on the game changed?
Not really. Bowl games are a fickle creature and I always felt that this was going to be a game that would be close either way. After looking into Central Michigan more, there is noting that I found in my brief research that leads me to believe that either team will dominate the other.
Now to actual football questions. Despite a few close games with good teams, the Gophers find themselves at 5-7 heading into bowl season. How can you briefly sum up Minnesota's season?
I would use this phrase to sum up the Gophers' season: they were mired in injuries, a coaching change, and a challenging schedule. In another year, this team could have probably won 8 or 9 games. But the large amount of injuries to players on both offense and defense hindered their ability to win any games beyond the "gimme" ones. When Coach Kill had to step down, it created another obstacle (for lack of a better word) the team had to make an in-season adjustment to. I don't think there was an obvious positive or negative change in the teams' performance when comparing the before and after between Jerry Kill and Tracey Claeys. But since we're talking about 18-23 year olds, such a drastic change in the middle of the season had to have some kind of impact on the team. Lastly, the Gophers, according to S&P+ ratings, played the 2nd toughest schedule in the country this season. While more talented, deeper teams could have won 8 or 9 games playing such a schedule, the Gophers' lacked the depth required to weather the injuries and beat the likes of Michigan, Iowa, Ohio State, and Wisconsin.
Central Michigan has shown flashes of a strong offensive attack led by experienced quarterback Cooper Rush. Does the Gopher defense have the ability to stop such a promising offense?
With defensive tackles Steven Richardson and Scott Ekpe listed as questionable, the Gophers' ability to stop the run may be in question. However, if both are able to play, it would allow the defense to be able to cycle more serviceable players through in the middle of the defense and make it harder on Central Michigan to assert themselves on the ground. If the Gophers can make the Chippewas pass the ball more than they'd like, which is hard to do seeing as Central Michigan prefers to throw the ball, the skilled secondary, highlighted by corners Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, should be able to make plays and force some ill-advised throws.
Who are the playmakers (offense and defense) that Chippewa fans should know about?
The aforementioned corners are both very high quality players. Freshman running back Shannon Brooks has had some highlight reel type runs and is capable of breaking off large chunks of yardage at any given time. Junior quarterback Mitch Leidner, when on his game, can pick apart a defense as evidence by the Michigan and Iowa games. It just depends on how the offensive line performs and if the front seven on the defensive side of the ball for Minnesota is doing their part to put pressure on the quarterback and increase the likelihood of a Chippewa turnover or two.
What is one part of Minnesota's football team that will need to step up in order to win this game?
I'll try to go semi off-the-radar here and say special teams. We at the Daily Gopher all love our punter Peter Mortell, but I've felt that he hasn't performed up to the All Big Ten level he reached last year. The Gophers are at their best when their special teams are performing at a high level that allows the defense to play a "bend-don't-break style" and the offense to work with short fields. If Mortell and the coverage units have strong performances on Monday, I see the Gophers winning the football game.
Lastly, who wins and why?
I'm a huge homer generally so it would be silly for me not to pick the Gophers when they've been favored by Vegas since the matchup was announced. I see the offense being competent enough to keep the defense from getting exhausted and the defense performing well after getting a month's rest. Brooks and Leidner have good days and the Gophers cover the spread with a 27-20 victory.
I would like to thank Mark Mowery of The Daily Gopher for participating in this Q&A. You can follow the Minnesota blog on Twitter @TheDailyGopher.