Central Michigan comes into the Quick Lane Bowl with a 7-5 record. It is easy for fans of a Power 5 program to dismiss a team from outside of the clique and assume victory will come as a matter of principle, but let's look closer at what the Chippewas have done this year and where they might give the Gophers trouble.
But first a brief detour to discuss their logo. Oofta. Nothing like some "1988 Chic" to build your brand on. You'll notice that the logo is registered as a trademark, so be careful not to use it when creating transparencies for your overhead projector-based presentation on the Dukakis campaign. Seriously, tell me that logo isn't more 80's than this. I did some digging and found CMU's actual presser revealing their logo. IIt's worth a watch. That video is from 1987. Someone please design a new logo for our Chippewa friends.
Back to football. CMU held tough against Oklahoma State at home, lost at Syracuse in overtime, and were beaten late by the Spartans in East Lansing. While those are impressive showings, they remain losses, and their predictive value is lessened by the passage of three months time between then and now. The Chippewas did go 6-2 in the MAC and their two losses - at Western Michigan and home to Toledo - came by a combined seven points. Respect.
While CMU maintains a fairly balanced attack in terms of play calling with a 55% pass rate, 78% of their offensive production comes from throwing the ball. Without having watched a snap of Chippewa football, this indicates a patience with the run game and big plays in the passing game. In fact, eight CMU receivers have catches of 25 yards or more on the season.
Defensively, Central Michigan excels both in defending passing downs and at stopping runs at the line of scrimmage. Over 20% of runs against Central Michigan have been stopped at or before the line of scrimmage. While they do not intercept many passes, CMU does force a lot of fumbles. Opponents have fumbled against CMU 22 times and the Chippewas have been able to covert half of those into turnovers. When you consider that 20% of CMU's points have come off of turnovers it becomes evident that the Chippewas like to get a short field and put points on the board.
When it comes to special teams, Central Michigan does not amaze. Kicking field goals from beyond 40 yards is a dicey proposition for them, going only 5-13 on the year. The Chippewas have only kicked two field goals longer than 45 yards all year. One interesting tidbit I picked up studying box scores and stats is this: CMU has not had a field goal scored against it since October 10 at Western Michigan. In that time opponents have missed efforts from 21, 33, and 39 yards. It may add up to nothing, but it does seem that CMU has been fortunate in the performances they've seen from opposing kickers.
Like most games of football the Quick Lane Bowl will likely come down to line play. I hope Steven Richardson and Scott Ekpe will be able to contribute in Detroit. Central Michigan is not a great running team, and their offensive line does succumb to pressure on passing downs. The Chippeweas rank 74th in the nation by allowing a sack on 7.8% of passing downs. Conversely, the Gopher offensive line will need to focus on stopping quick penetration on running downs. Stopping the run at or before the line of scrimmage is something the Chippewas excel at, but on the other hand CMU does surrender about 5.5 yards per carry on runs that are not stopped before the line of scrimmage. Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith might have room for big plays if they can stay patient and get beyond the line of scrimmage. Protecting Mitch Leidner when he drops back to pass should not be a problem as Central Michigan does not get a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks, with just a 3.9% sack rate on passing downs, good for 118th in the nation.
After examining the Chippewas of Central Michigan, three things concern me, their ability to stuff the run, their propensity for forcing fumbles, and their ability to hit big on passing plays. If Central Michigan can continue those trends it may be a long day for Gopher fans. However, if the Gopher secondary performs well and the offensive line can create a crease here and there, I see the Gophers coming away with a close victory.