Andy Sneddon, CMUChippewas.com
MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. - The Central Michigan football team went through its final preparations on Thursday for the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
The game between the Chippewas (8-4) and Wyoming (7-5) kicks off at 4 p.m. EST on Friday from Albertsons Stadium on the campus of Boise State University.
The Chippewas are eyeing their first bowl victory since Dec. 26, 2012, when they defeated Western Kentucky, 24-21, in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Detroit. Wyoming's last bowl victory came in 2009, when it defeated Fresno State, 35-28, in the New Mexico Bowl.
None of the players who will dress for the Chippewas on Friday has ever been a part of a bowl victory.
"We want to finish up with a win," senior cornerback Amari Coleman said. "We've been trying to get this the last three years and we haven't. That's our main focus and our main goal, to come out on top."
The Chippewas are riding their longest win streak, five games, since 2009. They have won six of their last seven game and their eight victories are the program's highest win total since '09.
CMU's second-half surge can be attributed to many factors, including health. The Chippewas were without a number of players for long stretches early in the season. Perhaps the hardest hit was the receiving corps: tight end Tyler Conklin missed the first five games; wide receiver Corey Willis was out for a three-game stretch; and wide receiver Brandon Childress was lost for the season in the second game.
Conklin said the Chippewas have been motivated for this moment since losing, 55-10, to Tulsa last season in the Miami Beach Bowl.
"After a disappointing loss last year, we kind of went in with a different mindset," he said. "We're excited to go out there and to win another trophy, cap off our season on a great winning streak."
Coach John Bonamego pointed to the three seniors - Conklin, Coleman and Joe Ostman -- sitting beside him at the Potato Bowl press conference in talking about the Chippewas' mentality.
"These three, then pretty much to a man everyone that's been in their (senior) class, it really started a year ago, after we lost against Tulsa in the bowl game, the manner in which the season ended, these guys kind of made a determination that they weren't going to finish out their college careers that way," he said. "They were going to fully invest themselves and demand from everybody else that they follow suit. That's what they did."
The Chippewa seniors, some two dozen strong, along with Bonamego, on Thursday visited patients at two Boise hospitals, Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center and Boise Veterans Administration Medical Center.
Bonamego and the players distributed CMU caps and t-shirts to patients at both locales.
"It's an awesome experience, very happy to be able to do," CMU quarterback Shane Morris said. "It's unbelievable to see the people and the smiles you put on their faces, just visiting with them."
Friday's game is the last for the seniors on the Chippewa roster.
Bonamego, who is in his third year as CMU's head coach, did not recruit most of the seniors on the roster (he did, of course, play a major role in bringing in graduate transfers Morris and safety Darwyn Kelly).
When asked to comment on the senior class, Bonamego did not hold back:
"I think the operative word is 'culture,' he said. "I think these guys have learned and demonstrated on a daily basis what leadership requires, the commitment that it requires, the sacrifices that it requires.
"So much of what we think about leadership is just leading by example or doing the right thing. I believe personally that leadership has to transcend much, much higher than that. If you're going to be effective, just doing the right thing isn't enough. That just makes you a good example. You can't lead quietly. You can't be a leader and sit in the corner passively and not engage people or communicate.
"That's based on relationships that you develop over time. It's based on respect. It has to start with the foundation of being somebody who does things the right way. These guys have personified that in their own ways through their own personalities.
"You're going to face adversity throughout a 12-game season. Every team's going to go through it. It's going to come up in some way, shape or form. How you handle that, how you navigate those times, is going to really be dependent on the strength of the leaders of your team.
"As coaches ... we're expected to be leaders. I've always believed that the greatest teams I've been a part of have been player-led. You've had great leadership in the locker room."
Bonamego credited the senior class for doing what any coach would hope for: helping the program to take necessary steps.
"I believe we've taken a big step forward in our program because they've set new standards, they've set the bar higher," he said. "They've been a great example for our underclassmen, not just the rising seniors next year, but all the way down to the freshmen class, of what it's supposed to look like.
"That's an important step when you come in and you're trying to establish a culture. It takes time. I feel like we've taken a huge step forward this year. A huge amount of credit has to go to these guys up here."