With Jerry Kill’s sudden retirement earlier in the week, there was no doubt Minnesota players wanted to come out at home and honor their former coach by beating No. 15 Michigan. And they almost pulled it off.
In a great back-and-forth game, the Gophers ended up less than a yard short of victory. Eschewing a game-tying field goal with two seconds remaining — and more on why there were only two seconds later — Michigan stuffed quarterback Mitch Leidner as time expired to hold on and beat the Gophers 29-26.
That wasn’t the only blown opportunity Minnesota had in the game, but obviously it is the one which stands out. The Gophers did honor Kill with the way they played, but it has to be left at that.
A recap of Saturday’s game:
— In his pregame speech, interim head coach Tracy Claeys told Gophers players not to rely on emotion, which fades, but with passion. No one can argue Minnesota didn’t do just that.
— Minnesota’s clock management was highly questionable. The Gophers burned two timeouts by the midway point in the first quarter. Not having those hurt as Minnesota played it conservatively at the end of the half, setting up for a field-goal attempt. Those two timeouts would have helped the Gophers try and go for a touchdown instead of killing the clock with a run. In the fourth quarter, the Gophers called timeout before Michigan’s two-point conversion — again, a TO which would have been nice to have on the final drive. Then, perhaps worst of all, on the 1/2-yard line with 19 seconds left, Minnesota called a play with a shift and multiple motions with the clock running.
— Minnesota coaches weren’t alone in making questionable moves. In the third quarter, on a fourth-down play Michigan QB Jake Rudock was sacked and fumbled, Minnesota recovering. Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh challenged the fumble. The call was confirmed and Michigan lost its right to challenge again the rest of the game. But why would Harbaugh do this? At best, it was still Minnesota’s ball since it was fourth down. The Gophers would have lost 7 yards if it was ruled an incomplete pass. Was that really worth your only challenge?
— Jake Rudock left the game for good with an injury in the third quarter, with Wilton Speight taking over. Speight was 0-for-4 passing coming into this game and misfired on his first three passes. However, a short punt by Ryan Santoro, no less, gave Michigan the ball at the Minnesota 40, which allowed Michigan to run some safe routes and Speight went 3 for 3 on that winning go-ahead touchdown drive.
— Speaking of Santoro, why was he punting in such a crucial situation? Claeys said wasn’t because Peter Mortell was injured but because Mortell had a bad punt last time out. Except Mortell’s final punt was a 53-yarder for a touchback (he had a 33-yarder on the one before that).
— Want to know the difference in the game? Perhaps look no further than this: Both teams had four red-zone opportunities. Michigan had a touchdown on each while Minnesota had no touchdowns.
— Leidner’s 52-yard touchdown pass to Rashad Still was Minnesota’s longest pass play of the year. The pass was for 22 yards, but Still spun away from a defender who appeared to lose sight of the ball then made a move on another defensive back en route to the end zone.
— Minnesota’s 144 yards rushing were the most allowed by Michigan this season and the 26 points were the second most.
— Leidner became the first Minnesota quarterback since Cory Sauter in 1995 to have back-to-back 300-yard passing games.
— Santoro had a career-high four field goals and De’Vondre Campbell had a career-high 13 tackles.
— If Minnesota pulled out the win, a 3rd-and-17 screen to Rodney Smith for a first down and a great catch by K.J. Maye on fourth down for another first would have been the key plays of the game. Instead, they are just nice plays soon to be forgotten.
A win surely would have boosted Claeys’ resume. Instead, some questionable clock management might have the opposite effect. In the short term, a win also would have really helped Minnesota’s quest to make a bowl game. Now, the Gophers must win two of the following games to even be bowl-eligible: at Ohio State, at Iowa, vs. Illinois and vs. Wisconsin. No easy task here.
This is a tough call based on how the game ended, but we’re going to go with Leidner. He had a career-high 317 yards and more than once had good runs on zone-reads in which Michigan got faked out and let the QB run free. He helped keep Minnesota in the game with mistake-free football. We’ll pin the way the game ended more on the coaches than Leidner, who had a great pump-fake pass to Drew Wolitarsky to even get the ball to the 1/2-yard line.
Tight end Brandon Lingren had five catches for 111 yards, with four of those receptions resulting in first downs. Lingren was also the guy who Minnesota looked to down by the goal line at the end of the game.
There’d be a few to choose from had Minnesota scored. But the Gophers lost. Thus, the key play here was the two-point play by Michigan which gave the Wolverines a three-point lead. This not only meant Minnesota had to get a touchdown to win — and the Gophers certainly had a chance to tie at the end — but it also used a precious timeout before the play call. And then Minnesota had the play apparently stopped before QB Wilton Speight finally was able to flip a pass to Amarah Darboh for the conversion.
17 — the number of seconds which elapsed on Minnesota’s second-to-last play. Interim head coach Tracy Claeys admitted after the game they knew there were all those motions in that play, which ended up as an incomplete pass and only two seconds remaining. The decision to run a play like that was quite befuddling, especially when Minnesota had one timeout left in its pocket.
"I just think in those situations you’ve got to be able to get half a yard. If it’s outside the 1-yard line, hey, we’ll kick it and move on. But in that situation I felt like we could get it. I’d do it all over again and do the same thing." — Claeys on going for a touchdown on the final play instead of a game-tying field goal
"We definitely wanted to come out and get this win for him, because I know he was watching, and he’s probably upset, too. He probably shouldn’t have watched it. But we wanted to come out and get this win for him and that was something that was in the back of our minds." — Campbell on Kill
"Coach Kill is so important to the state of Minnesota. The entire student section loves him. He’s done so much for this team, this program. I was honored to be able to do that tonight. They asked me earlier in the week if I wanted to do it and I said "Hell yeah, I want to do that. I want to do that so badly." To get the opportunity to do that tonight for coach Kill is something I’ll never forget." — Leidner on carrying a Jerrysota flag before the game.
Things don’t get any easier for Minnesota (4-4, 1-3 Big Ten) as it travels to Columbus, Ohio, to face Ohio State (8-0, 4-0). The Buckeyes won’t have quarterback J.T. Barrett, but there’s still Cardele Jones, Ezekiel Elliott, Joey Bosa, etc. to contend with. Oh, and Ohio State will be well-rested as it is coming off a bye.