Before we get into the preview article, I want to give fans a little background on the Quick Lane Bowl and their partnership with the DAV (Disabled American Veterans). Quick Lane has chosen to work with Disabled American Veterans as part of their bowl sponsorship. Through the 2015 Quick Lane Bowl, Quick Lane will help raise awareness and funds to support DAV's focus of empowering veterans to lead high-quality lives with respect and dignity. DAV is the longest-running veterans' advocacy and assistance group in the United States. It has never wavered from its core mission to fulfill our country's promises to the men and women who served. If you'd like to learn more about this sponsorship, please head to QuickLaneBowl.com or check them out on Twitter @QuickLaneBowl.
Before each Minnesota football game, GopherDigest will ask five questions of an opposing beat writer. This week, we spoke with Central Michigan beat writer Nate Schneider, journalist of Mount Pleasant Morning Sun beat writer (Mount Pleasant, Michigan) to preview the Gophers' bowl game opponent against the 7-5 Central Michigan Chippewas.
1) After a 7-5 season for Central Michigan, in which those five losses were by a combined 8.2 points per game, what did you learn about this Chippewa team?
NS: The competitive spirit is pretty incredible with this group. A couple things happened over the summer which brought the Central Michigan roster as close as it's ever been in my four seasons covering the program. First, head coach John Bonamego was diagnosed with tonsil cancer in May. His battle over the following six months as an extra inspiration for a team picked to finish fifth in the Mid-American Conference West Division in the preseason poll. Chippewa players saw what their head coach was going through and it toughened them to the point which they believed anything was possible. And it almost was considering CMU led Oklahoma State in the third quarter, took Syracuse to overtime and was in a one-score game at Michigan State heading to the fourth quarter. A share of the MAC West Division title was certainly unexpected in 2015 and Central Michigan certainly proved a lot of people wrong.
Secondly, beloved teammate Derrick Nash passed away in June following a two-year battle with leukemia. The No. 21 jersey of Nash has been worn as a legacy jersey by a Central Michigan player all season, a tradition Bonamego says will continue as long as he is head coach. Senior safety Kavon Frazier will be the the first CMU player to wear 21 twice this season when he adorns Nash's jersey number for the bowl game. Central Michigan also had a mural of Nash created inside its home locker room at Kelly/Shorts Stadium. The memory of Nash has been carried with the Chippewas all season and it has translated to competitive fire on the field.
2) Junior quarterback Cooper Rush threw for over 300 yards a game with a 67% completion percentage and 25 touchdowns during the regular season. What were your thoughts on Rush at quarterback this past season?
NS: Nothing that Rush is doing has really surprised me. I always knew he had all the tools and it was only a matter of putting them all together. The biggest question mark this season was finding go-to playmakers following the departure of 2014 offensive stars Titus Davis and Thomas Rawls. Although CMU has not exactly found those one or two big-time players around Rush, it has instead turned into a successful committee approach. Rush has made everyone around him better through making quality reads, accurate throws and leading by example. Rush will never be a fiery, rah rah guy. He never makes waves with quotes or does something to embarrass the program. He's the kind of quarterback any program would be happy to have. Rush is also an excellent student and was recently kidded by coaches about a disastrous A-minus grade on an exam. I'd definitely expect him to shine in the spotlight at the Quick Lane Bowl, perhaps with another 300-plus yard and multi-touchdown performance. But he probably won't exceed his once-in-a-lifetime 493-yard and seven-TD showing in last year's Bahamas Bowl, capped by the improbable Hail Mary touchdown.
3) It looks to be a pretty even with the pass catchers for Rush as five different Central Michigan players have more than 30 catches this season. Which specifically should fans keep an eye on Monday?
NS: If I had to pick one wideout, it would probably be redshirt junior Jesse Kroll. He had his biggest games during the second half of the season as three times he had seven receptions with between 130 and 139 yards. Kroll is a big target at 6-foot-3 and 214 pounds, but he is skilled at getting in space and adding yards after the catch. Also look for senior tight end Ben McCord, who has coupled a few monster games with others where he has disappeared. Early in the season, McCord was called "the best tight end in college football" by Bonamego. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but McCord has shown the ability to be dominant. Just ask Syracuse. Several other wide receivers are also very capable for CMU including Anthony Rice, Mark Chapman and Corey Willis. All of them talk frequently about the balance of the CMU passing attack so it is very difficult to predict who might have a huge game from week to week.
4) What are the strengths of the Chippewa defense and who are a few names to keep an eye on for the game this Monday?
NS: A lot of people thought the CMU defense would take a downturn this season due to a shift from the 4-2-5 setup employed last year to a more standard 4-3-4 in 2015 under first-year defensive coordinator Greg Colby. That hasn't been the case at all as the Chippewas ranked first in the MAC in yards allowed per game. Central Michigan does not have an outstanding defensive line, especially after an ankle injury to junior defensive end Joe Ostman which basically kept him out for nine games. But the D-line has still been very solid, led by defensive end Blake Serpa. The pass rushing and disruptive abilities of Serpa have been noticeable the second half of the season as he also had to recover from an offseason injury.
At linebacker, the Chippewas are very young. Senior middle linebacker and co-captain Tim Hamilton suffered a season-ending injury against Western Michigan, a big loss to CMU as he was second on the roster in tackles at the time of his injury. Watch for redshirt freshman Malik Fountain to have a productive game in the Quick Lane Bowl. Although Fountain is very raw at this stage, he could be playing at the next level in four years if he continues his natural development. At the back end, Frazier is a ball hawk and finished ninth in the MAC in tackles this season with 104. His 69 unassisted tackles ranked him second. Frazier and junior Tony Annese form arguably the top safety duo in the conference. Although the Chippewas are young at cornerback, it has not been a problem area as sophomore Amari Coleman has already proven himself as a shutdown cornerback. He held Michigan State's Aaron Burbridge to four catches for 31 yards earlier this season.
5) What are the keys for Central Michigan if they're going to beat the Gophers and what's your prediction for the Minnesota vs. Central Michigan game and why?
NS: The key for CMU will be establishing any semblance of a running game to take the heat off Rush. Although it is clear Rush can handle it, the fact Central Michigan didn't have a ground game hurt majorly against bigger opponents such as Oklahoma State and Michigan State. Aside from that, the usual stuff such as turnovers and field position battle will play major factors in who comes out on top. Although the Chippewas should have a nice homefield advantage and have proven they can hang with the big boys,