DETROIT – Not only was it Christmas on Friday, but it also was Gophers coach Tracy Claeys’ 47th birthday.
“Usually people don’t know it’s my birthday so it’s a better situation,” said Claeys, whose team is preparing to play Central Michigan on Monday in the Quick Lane Bowl. “It’s special because you get to be around the kids. We’re all away from our main families, and they’re a group that you spend more time with than your main family so that’s the best thing.”
Claeys said there’s still one important thing to focus on, though.
“We’re here to win a game,” he said. “So there’s a serious side to it also.”
After the Gophers finished the regular season with a 5-7 record (2-6 in the Big Ten), it appeared their season was over and that a fourth consecutive bowl trip wouldn’t happen because they had failed to win six games.
“We thought we were done and we kind of accepted that,” Gophers senior guard Jon Christenson said.
However, there weren’t enough six-win teams to fill the available bowl spots, and the Gophers and two others — Nebraska and San Jose State — received bids because of their high Academic Progress Rate. On Dec. 6, Minnesota found out it would fill the Big Ten’s spot in the Quick Lane Bowl and play Central Michigan.
Christenson and senior cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun said that after the initial surprise wore off, they realized there was more work to do.
“I’m not going to lie, it was kind of tough for me personally,” Boddy-Calhoun said of readjusting. “You get all your weeps and your cries out, and you get ready to go on to the next chapter and it’s like, ‘Wait, hold on we’re coming back.’ I was caught kind of off guard by it. Since I’ve been here, I’ve never not gone to a bowl game. We’re looking forward to it.”
Claeys said he doesn’t look at this bowl game any differently than he has in the past three as the defensive coordinator and associate head coach under Jerry Kill, who retired in October because of health concerns.
“It’s the same as we’ve done,” Claeys said. “It’s an extra game a little later in the season. The game of football is still played between the white lines on the field. Obviously the bowls are special because they reward the kids, but as far as the game goes and staff preparation, it’s really no different than any other game day. You do your best to put them in a position to be successful and hopefully they play hard and play well. If you do that, you’ll have a chance to win.”
Claeys said defensive tackles Steven Richardson (calf) and Scott Ekpe (concussion) participated in practice Friday, as did defensive back Jalen Myrick (punctured lung). Richardson and Ekpe are questionable for Monday’s game; Myrick is no longer on the injury list.
“I anticipate them playing,” he said. “We’ll see how much … But Scott, Steve and Jalen all wore pads today and were able to get some reps in. There’s no doubt as long they came through today healthy that they’ll at least get to play some, and that’s good for us.”
The Gophers arrived in Detroit on Thursday and participated in an activity the first night in town.
“We went and did a team function last night, a fowling thing,” Claeys said. “It’s a combination of football and bowling, I guess. The kids had a good time. The team had a Christmas dinner Friday night.”
He said that while the short trip — only four days — will focus mostly on getting ready for the game, there will still be time to experience the city.
“We don’t have a lot of time to experience a lot of things,” Claeys said. “They’ll get to see a good portion of the city, but not as much as when you go somewhere and stay a week.”
• The Gophers have played the Chippewas only once, on Sept. 26, 1987, at the Metrodome. Minnesota won 30-10.