DETROIT — Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys made no apologies for taking his team to a bowl with a losing record.
The Golden Gophers made the most of their opportunity.
"We played by the rules," Claeys said. "If they don’t want 5-7 teams in the bowl, then change the rule, but right now that’s the rule."
Quarterback Mitch Leidner ran 13 yards for a touchdown with 4:26 remaining, and the Golden Gophers held on for a 21-14 win over Central Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl on Monday night. Minnesota ended a trying season on a positive note. Coach Jerry Kill retired in late October because of continued difficulty managing his epilepsy and his job, and Claeys took over.
The Gophers were 5-7 after the regular season but were able to play on because not enough teams reached six wins to fill all the bowls. All three teams that went to bowls at 5-7 — Minnesota, Nebraska and San Jose State — ended up winning.
"I’m not going to apologize for any of it," Claeys said. "We felt like based on the rules, we played by the rules and deserved to be here and had a great time."
Central Michigan (7-6) took a 14-13 lead with 11:08 remaining on a 13-yard touchdown run by Romello Ross. Minnesota responded by driving 74 yards in 13 plays.
"We were confident when we come out onto that field," Leidner said. "Defense, we knew was playing great all night. We knew that if we could get another touchdown up on the board, they would get another stop for us."
Leidner ran for the go-ahead touchdown, then threw to KJ Maye for a 2-point conversion.
CMU drove back into Minnesota territory, but Cooper Rush threw an ill-advised pass while being pulled down from behind, and his attempt to avoid a sack backfired when Briean Boddy-Calhoun intercepted the ball with 2:10 to play.
Both teams had to overcome plenty of adversity this season. Minnesota had to play on after Kill’s retirement. He was an honorary captain for the Gophers at the pregame coin toss Monday.
CMU coach John Bonamego was diagnosed with cancer in his left tonsil and underwent treatment before the season. That was a tough way for him to begin his first season at the helm at CMU.
"I’ll always remember our seniors and how they bought in from day one and worked," Bonamego said. "Coaching changes and transitions are tough on programs."
Rush ran for the game’s first touchdown Monday, scoring from 1 yard out to give CMU a 7-3 lead early in the second quarter. The Gophers took a 10-7 lead into halftime thanks to an 11-yard touchdown pass from Leidner to Maye.
It was 13-7 in the third when an onside kick by Minnesota was unsuccessful, giving the Chippewas the ball at midfield. CMU wasn’t able to do anything with that field position, but after a failed fourth down by Minnesota early in the fourth, the Chippewas went 56 yards in four plays.
CMU took the lead on the run by Ross. Minnesota appeared to have him stopped at about the 3-yard line, but the Chippewas were able to push the pile into the end zone.
Ross ran for 100 yards on 19 carries, but Rush was pretty well contained. CMU’s single-season record holder for yards passing, Rush went only 15 of 29 for 145 yards with an interception.
Leidner was 24 of 30 for 223 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
Last season, CMU scored on a lateral-filled play as time expired in the Bahamas Bowl, although the Chippewas lost to Western Kentucky when they went for 2 and didn’t convert. This year, Central Michigan had the ball at its own 30 with 4 seconds to play, but the game ended when Rush was sacked by De’Vondre Campbell.
The announced attendance was 34,217 despite a winter storm that was passing through Michigan. Having a local team surely helped boost the number of fans. Last year’s game between North Carolina and Rutgers drew 23,876.