Thanks to the influx of additional bowl games this year, Minnesota is one of three teams in 2015 that finished with a 5-7 record but still received a postseason invite.
The Golden Gophers lost five of six to end the regular season – including losses to three ranked opponents – but an extra game at the end of December gives new head coach Tracy Claeys some valuable time to get a few more practices in and further evaluate the program’s strengths and weaknesses heading into the offseason.
Central Michigan, Minnesota’s opponent, will be looking to give the Gophers their eighth loss of the season after winning seven games and becoming bowl eligible for the seventh time in the last 10 years.
Solid on both sides of the ball, the Chippewas suffered competitive early-season losses to Oklahoma State (24-13), Syracuse (30-27), and Michigan State (30-10) before finishing 6-2 in Mid-American Conference (MAC) play – where they fell to Western Michigan and Toledo by a combined seven points.
With no bad loss next to its name, CMU is a worthy adversary for Minnesota, as both teams look to end the 2015 season on a high note in the Quick Lane Bowl.
Central Michigan vs. Minnesota (Detroit)
Kickoff: 5 p.m. ET (Monday, Dec. 28)
Spread: Minnesota -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Minnesota’s secondary vs. Central Michigan’s wide receivers
Despite enduring injuries throughout the regular season, Minnesota’s secondary anchors the 15th-ranked passing defense in FBS (5th in the Big Ten ) at 182.4 yards per game and in yards per attempt (6.0, tied for 15th). The Golden Gophers also gave up just 13 touchdowns through the air, recording nine interceptions in the process. Cornerbacks Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun are future NFL players, and they’ll be handed the task of containing a Chippewas offense that ranks second in the MAC in explosive passing plays that result in 20 yards or more (52). Containing top wide receiver Jesse Kroll (59 receptions, 856 yards, four touchdowns) and forcing quarterback Cooper Rush to throw to his second, third, and fourth options will be vital for the Gophers.
2. Cooper Rush against a struggling pass rush
Rush has faced more difficult challenges in 2015, including other Power 5 defenses in Michigan State and Oklahoma State and Michigan State, not to mention stout MAC units like Northern Illinois, Akron and Toledo. The junior quarterback is battle-tested and on a hot streak. Over the last seven games Rush has totaled 2,253 passing yards (321.9 per game), 17 touchdowns and just six interceptions. If he can find enough time against a Minnesota pass rush that has produced only 20 sacks (12th in Big Ten), the Chippewas have a legitimate shot at winning.
3. A potential breakthrough for Minnesota’s backfield
The Gophers’ ground attack enters bowl season ranked No. 101 nationally with a meager 142.9 rushing yards per game. Freshmen running backs Shannon Brooks (644 yards, seven touchdowns) and Rodney Smith (596, 2) have shared carries since Week 1, and the two only have three individual 100-yard performances combined. Central Michigan has been pretty strong against the run (No. 3 in the MAC with 137.6 ypg), but has had lapses against quality opponents. Expect to see the Gophers to try and establish dominance up front from the very beginning, taking the “ground-and-pound” approach while winning the war on field position and time of possession.
Cooper Rush and the Central Michigan offense should be able to find some holes in Minnesota’s defense, but there won’t be enough big plays to provide the Chippewas with multiple red zone opportunities. The Gophers’ exceptional pass defense should have its way for most of the game, and a heavy focus on the running game gives them the edge as the program ends its seven-game losing streak in bowl games.
Prediction: Minnesota 20, Central Michigan 13
— Written by Tyler Waddell, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Waddell’s work has previously been published by Bleacher Report, the Los Angeles Times, NOLA.com, Today's U, and other outlets. Follow him on Twitter: @Tyler_Waddell.
(Cooper Rush photo courtesy of CMU Athletics Communications)