After the emotional retirement of head coach Jerry Kill, Minnesota looked poised to pick up a huge win over Michigan on Saturday night. Instead, the Wolverines came up with a goal-line stand, sending the Gophers to a heartbreaking defeat.
Minnesota looked like it erased a painful week when Mitch Leidner found Drew Wolitarsky for an apparent 23-yard game-winning touchdown with 19 seconds to play against No. 15 Michigan. Instead, Wolitarsky was ruled down at the one-yard line. Two plays later, Leidner found himself stuffed by a host of Michigan defenders on a sneak, and the Gophers’ heart-wrenching week only got worse with a 29–26 loss to the Wolverines on Saturday night at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
After losing starting quarterback Jake Rudock to an injury in the third quarter, sophomore backup Wilton Speight helped commandeer the eventual game-winning drive with a touchdown pass to wide receiver Jehu Chesson with 4:57 remaining and a two-point conversion to Amara Darboh.
With the win, Michigan took back the coveted Little Brown Jug, the trophy the two teams have played for since 1892. The Wolverines will keep it at least through 2016, as the teams aren’t slated to play again until 2017.
Below are three thoughts on Michigan’s survival victory, which keeps it in the hunt for a Big 10 title.
1. It’s gone from sad to heartbreaking for Minnesota
The health-induced retirement of Minnesota coach Jerry Kill cast a pall over the university earlier this week. The 54-year-old head coach was a veteran of tough head coaching jobs (Saginaw State, Emporia State, Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois) before bringing his refreshing vigor and enthusiasm to a university without a proud recent football tradition. It was “Jerrysota” with Kill on campus, and he helped elevate the team from three wins in his first season to eight wins in 2013 and 2014 (he sat out a chunk of the 2013 season after suffering a series of seizures). Beloved by the community, Minnesota wanted Kill to coach the team as long as he was able. Unfortunately, his health prevented him from even finishing the 2015 season.
So it was up to the interim replacement, Tracy Claeys, one of Kill’s longtime assistants, to lead the team into an emotional matchup against Michigan. Despite a choppy performance from Leidner at quarterback, the Gophers showcased a balanced offense and astoundingly outgained Michigan 461–296. Swallowing up 6.8 yards per play, the Gophers looked primed for an upset that the program starved for after Kill’s retirement.
They almost got their wish when Wolitarsky appeared to score. Minnesota looked like it had gone ahead with 23 seconds remaining before he was called down at the one-yard line following a review. Leidner then tossed an incomplete pass on first-and-goal after some questionable clock management—the Gophers let 12 seconds run off before snapping the ball—leaving Minnesota one final chance to finish the upset. Claeys called for a QB sneak inside the one, which Michigan’s behemoth defensive line stuffed easily to preserve its 29–26 lead.
It was so close for a team yearning for a trademark Big Ten win. Instead, that one painful yard will loom over the team for the rest of the season.
2. Michigan was saved by some unlikely players
Before the season started, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh refused to specify whether senior transfer Rudock or junior Shane Morris would start opening night against Utah. Rudock was the eventual selection, and remained the starter through the first eight games of the year. When Rudock exited the game with a third-quarter injury, it was Speight, not Morris, who replaced him.
Michigan clung mostly to the running game with Speight in the game—he attempted only six passes after entering with 4:40 remaining in the third quarter—but he completed two pivotal passes on the game-winning drive (including the touchdown strike to Chesson) to put Michigan up with 4:57 remaining.
The running game has been anchored primarily by De’Veon Smith and Derrick Green, but it was senior Drake Johnson, an Ann Arbor native, who picked up a crucial first down on the game-winning drive and was the Wolverines’ leading rusher for the night. While Smith and Green combined for a dismal 18 yards on 13 carries, Johnson rushed for 55 yards on 10 carries, his best performance in a high-leverage game this season.
If Michigan continues to compete for a Big Ten title, the contributions of Speight and Johnson in a pivotal game shouldn’t be forgotten.
3. Michigan got a scare, but is still in the hunt
The Wolverines were thoroughly outgained and outmuscled at points. Minnesota was the better team for a large chunk of the first half and looked like it earned a hard-fought victory.
Yet Michigan still won.
With losses to Utah (a playoff contender) and Michigan State (in one of the craziest endings in the history of college football), Michigan remains one of the most fearsome teams in the nation. Depending on the severity of Rudock’s injury and the viability of its run offense, the Wolverines still appear to be a legitimate threat to Ohio State when the teams meet on Nov. 28. With Indiana, Rutgers and Penn State sitting between them and the Buckeyes, Michigan should be 9–2 entering that matchup.
The depth appears to be there, as does the toughness it takes to win games that the Wolverines would have likely lost last season.