DETROIT – After arriving here Christmas Eve, four nights before Monday’s Quick Lane Bowl, the Gophers football team checked into a high-rise, downtown hotel and made short, calculated bus trips to Ford Field for practice.
The Gophers attended a few activities with their opponents from Central Michigan, including an elegant dinner at the Henry Ford Museum. But it was a stark contrast from last year’s eight-day trip to the Citrus Bowl, where players had shuttle service and free tickets to Orlando-area theme parks.
Senior wide receiver KJ Maye called this “a business trip,” adding, “We’re going there to win a game.”
Cynics might view the whole lower-tier bowl experience as wasted time, but the 5-7 Gophers have plenty to gain — and plenty to lose — in Detroit.
The 134-year-old football program can end a seven-game bowl losing streak that stretches to its victory over Alabama in the 2004 Music City Bowl. That includes losses to Texas Tech, Syracuse and Missouri the past three years under then-coach Jerry Kill.
“Our seniors could be our first group to finish a season with a win,” said coach Tracy Claeys, who took over when Kill retired for health reasons Oct. 28.
The Gophers are 1-4 under Claeys, though the four losses came to Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin, four teams that went a combined 41-8 this season.
For recruiting purposes, Claeys will have an easier sell if the Gophers finish 6-7, compared to 5-8 with another bowl loss, this time against a Mid-American Conference opponent.
“We’re going to come out here and play not like we’re a 5-7 team but like we’ve won every single game,” senior cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun said. “We’re going to leave it all on the field.”
Quarterback Mitch Leidner will be a senior next fall, so he leads the group of returning players looking to use Motown as the launching point for a 2016 turnaround.
Leidner had four consecutive 250-yard passing games before his four-turnover game — three interceptions and a fumble — in the Wisconsin loss on Nov. 28.
Individually, Leidner had strong showings in his two previous bowl games. He passed for 205 yards against Syracuse in the 2013 Texas Bowl and 258 yards against Missouri in last season’s Citrus Bowl.
“Obviously, the losses are things I remember,” Leidner said. “Getting a win would be a great feeling, and I think that would be a great springboard for us moving forward.”
Tailbacks Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith hope to cap their up-and-down freshman seasons with a flourish against a Central Michigan team that ranked 30th nationally in rushing defense. After winning back-to-back Big Ten freshman of the week honors, Brooks was held to 8 yards on five carries against Wisconsin.
And Smith said he is finally feeling close to 100 percent after spraining an ankle against Ohio State on Nov. 7. Brooks and Smith will be running behind a banged-up offensive line that has had four weeks to heal.
“I expect us to play our tails off,” senior guard Jon Christenson said. “Central Michigan is a great team. We know they’re going to come out gunning.”
This will be the Gophers send-off for Maye, who became Leidner’s go-to receiver this year and pointed the way for the team’s younger receivers with his tireless work ethic. Next year, the team’s lone senior receiver will be Drew Wolitarsky, whose production has quietly quadrupled this season, as well.
Wolitarsky said the Gophers are ready for this game. “You’d be surprised; I feel a lot more energy actually this year in practices,” he said. “We weren’t expecting to go to a bowl; we were kind of iffy, and now that we’ve got the chance, the opportunity, we’re like, ‘This will be fun.’
“The hotel’s really nice, and [Ford Field’s] a good venue. Yeah, it’s not Jan. 1, it’s not the Citrus Bowl, but we’re equally as excited.”
Claeys fired offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover after the Wisconsin game, so tight ends coach Rob Reeves will call the offensive plays. Reeves handled that role at the Humanitarian Bowl for Northern Illinois in 2010, after Kill, Claeys and Limegrover had left for Minnesota. With Reeves calling the plays, the Huskies beat Fresno State 40-17.
While Reeves isn’t viewed as a candidate to be Limegrover’s long-term replacement, this is another chance to show what he can do.
“I’m excited about Coach Reeves,” Leidner said. “He came up to me, and said, ‘Go through this game plan, and if there’s anything you aren’t comfortable with or don’t like, just make sure you let me know.’ And I was like, ‘Sounds good.’ ”
Defensively, the Gophers will be considerably healthier than they were for the Wisconsin game, with cornerback Jalen Myrick (punctured lung) and defensive tackles Steven Richardson (calf) and Scott Ekpe (concussion) all expected back from their injuries.
Claeys said the two main defensive goals for this game are to improve on third down and be better at stopping the run.
Central Michigan (7-5) won’t make things easy. The Chippewas went 6-2 in the MAC, including a victory over Northern Illinois. They also lost in overtime to Syracuse.
Having coached in the MAC, Claeys remembers how driven those players are going up against Big Ten teams, having essentially been told they’re not good enough to play in that conference.
“Central’s going to be a great challenge,” Claeys said. “It’ll be like a home game for them, and we’ve talked about the MAC teams going against a Big Ten team. We’re going to get their best.”