DETROIT — When Central Michigan takes the field against Minnesota in the Quick Lane Bowl, the Chippewas will have an opportunity none of their Mid-American Conference brethren has had this postseason.
"We're excited to play the Big Ten," CMU coach John Bonamego said.
The MAC put seven teams in bowls this season, but only CMU was matched up with a team from a Power Five conference. That game will take place Monday in Detroit when the Chippewas face Minnesota.
Matchups between the MAC and Big Ten are fairly common early in the season. Minnesota (5-7) beat Kent State and Ohio this year, and CMU (7-5) lost to Michigan State. The Chippewas are 6-23 against the Big Ten, but they beat Purdue last year and Iowa in 2012.
The Golden Gophers are playing in this game because not enough teams reached .500 to fill all the bowls. Minnesota lost five of its last six games in the regular season, in part because of a difficult schedule down the stretch that included Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin.
"For everything our kids have been through, we look forward to having the opportunity to play one more game together against a very good team," Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys said.
Both teams had to overcome adversity this season in the form of health issues for their coaches. Minnesota's Jerry Kill retired in the middle of the season because of continued difficulty managing his epilepsy and his job, and Claeys took over. Bonamego was diagnosed before the season with cancer in his left tonsil and underwent radiation treatment, although he was able to keep coaching the Chippewas.
Here are a few things to know before Minnesota and CMU take the field:
CMU's Cooper Rush has put up impressive numbers this season, completing 67 percent of his passes for 3,703 yards with 25 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Minnesota's Mitch Leidner has thrown for 2,478 yards with 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
HOME SWEET HOME
Bonamego said bowls in Idaho and Florida looked like possibilities along with the Quick Lane Bowl, and he said his players will appreciate the chance to stay in the team's home state.
"I just kind of did a couple informal polls, really just talking to the seniors," Bonamego said. "Obviously, any time you talk about the possibility of going someplace warm, that always moves to the top of the list, but there was an overwhelming majority of our guys that really had Detroit first because they have family, they want to be able to play in front of their family, and they're excited about our students being able to be there as well."
The other six MAC teams in bowls have already played, and they went 3-3. That leaves CMU to determine whether the conference finishes above or below .500 this bowl season.
Injuries have decimated the Gophers, particularly on the offensive line, the defensive line and in the secondary. But the extra time before the bowl ought to help them be closer to full strength against the Chippewas.
Defensive tackles Steven Richardson and Scott Ekpe were largely unavailable in November with injuries, but they returned to practice. Safety Damarius Travis hurt his hamstring in the season opener and didn't play again, opting to seek a medical redshirt. Cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun missed four games in October with a knee injury, but he's worked his way back into form.
Minnesota decided to pay bonuses in coaches' contracts for the team's bowl selection, even though the Gophers wouldn't have been eligible to go if there were enough .500 teams to fill all the spots.
The money was complicated for Minnesota by Kill's midseason retirement. Kill's contract included a $50,000 bonus for a bowl appearance, and he'll get 58 percent of that ($29,000) for coaching seven of the 12 scheduled games. Claeys will get the remaining 42 percent ($21,000).