Quick Lane Bowl: Central Michigan Chippewas vs. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Date: Dec. 28, 5 p.m. ET on ESPN2
Location: Detroit | Ford Field
Best moment: Central Michigan started its brutal nonconference slate (against Oklahoma State, Michigan State and Syracuse) by staying competitive with the Cowboys through the third quarter. It was an emotional night for CMU coach John Bonamego, who took the field for the first time at his alma mater a couple of weeks after finishing chemotherapy to treat tonsil cancer.
Lowest moment: The Chippewas pulled within two points of in-state rival Western Michigan on the road midway through the fourth quarter. Another score would have meant beating two of the division’s top teams in back-to-back weeks. Instead, Western burned off the final 8:24 with a 15-play drive, which included two third-down conversions and one on fourth down.
Key player: Quarterback Cooper Rush (6-foot-3, 227 pounds) is a legitimate NFL prospect. He threw for 3,703 yards and 25 touchdowns this season to lead one of the 15 most prolific passing offenses in the bowl subdivision.
Motivation level: Bonamego and his Chippewas finished the year at 7-5 after a difficult stretch in September. There aren’t any specific factors to fire up the Chips, but after they played in one of the most entertaining bowl games of 2014 in the Bahamas, don’t be surprised if Central puts on a good show again. -- Dan Murphy
Best moment: A victory that was supposed to just keep the Gophers alive in the hunt for bowl eligibility turned into a bowl-clincher thanks to the lack of six-win teams nationally. Minnesota’s five wins turned out to be enough to qualify this season, which makes their 32-23 victory over Illinois on Nov. 21 even more valuable in hindsight for new coach Tracy Claeys. Minnesota hadn’t won a game since the unexpected retirement of Jerry Kill forced the program to shake up the coaching staff, but behind 174 rushing yards and three touchdowns from Shannon Brooks, Claeys picked up a victory that gives Minnesota valuable extra practice time.
Lowest moment: As if the week hadn’t been emotionally draining enough for Minnesota, the week of Kill’s forced retirement due to health concerns spiraled even further when a major upset of Michigan slipped away in the closing seconds. Playing to honor their coach, the Gophers delivered an inspired effort and were on the brink of punching in a game-winning touchdown -- only to suffer a complete clock-management meltdown and stall at the goal line.
Key player: One of the nation’s premier cornerbacks plies his trade far from the spotlight. Though he doesn’t rack up many attention-grabbing individual statistics, opponents are well aware of the risk of testing Eric Murray when they take on the Gophers. The senior is one of the best-kept secrets in the country, coming off a season that included three forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, an interception and four tackles for loss -- numbers that would certainly have been better if quarterbacks were more willing to throw his way. He has one more chance to showcase his skills with the Gophers before an NFL team tries to turn him into a household name.
Motivation level: Above average. The Gophers probably aren’t doing back flips about sneaking into the postseason with a losing record, and it’s certainly not the most prestigious opportunity in the Big Ten. But the bowl practices could prove quite useful for Claeys as he tries to put his stamp on the program and potentially build some momentum for his first offseason in charge of the Gophers. -- Austin Ward