Minnesota’s Gophers, led by their Mascot Goldie Gopher, left their Minnesota burrows, and settled into their football home Stadium with full intentions of finally nipping the Wolverine’s dreams of a shot at Big Ten prominence this year. They had many reasons to dispense another Big Ten loss to the Wolverines. The Gophers translated those reasons to the field as the they almost toppled the Wolverines.
At times, the defense did not play like the premier defense in the country or even like a top ten defense as they struggled to stop the pass and run. They let three interceptions slide through their hands. Their porous defense allowed the Minnesota offense to control much of the game, and make big plays. The Wolverines yielded 458-yards, including many significant pass plays over 20-yards.
Finally, the defense proved its mettle by conserving a victory with a last seconds stand at the half yard line. Not once, but twice. The M defensive line and linebackers controlled.
This was set up by trailing M DB Channing Stripling catching the Gopher receiver from behind, and getting his knee down a half yard from what would have been the winning TD. It looked like this 74-yard drive might be a game winner, with no time for M to answer offensively.
With 19 seconds left, the Gophers lined up, shifted, wasting time and perhaps losing a third opportunity at a TD. Seventeen seconds evaporated, and there was only time for one more play during the remaining two ticks on the clock.
According to a player after the game, the Wolverines knew that it would be a QB sneak by the 240 pound Gopher QB, Mitch Leidner.
They submarined, and pushed Leidner back just enough to not break the plane. The call on the field was no TD, the review confirmed the call, and the final score of M 29, Gophers 26, went into the record book.
While the Wolverines were 75-25-3 against the pesky rodents coming into Saturday’s game, they also owned a recent 30-14 thrashing that the Gophers doled out last year. As Keith Jackson would have said it was a “Whuppin”.
The Gophers also out gained the Wolverines this year with 141-yards rushing, and 317 passing.
What was called by many pre-game the Number One defense in the country was embarrassed by the hard charging Gophers. It came down to the unlikely scenario of M QB Wilton Speight tossing the game winning pass to the emerging playmaker Jehu Chesson, who caught two TD passes. One thrown by Speight and one from Rudock. Chesson has become a weapon on the ground and in the air. He also had a 22-yard run.
After the game Coach Harbaugh praised Rudock’s game, perhaps more than I thought he would. Jake left the game after a nasty hit as he was sliding. He was 13 of 21 for 140-yards and a TD, but also had a fumble and an interception.
Speight afterward said the coaches worked with him, and he got snaps just like a starter. He was 6 of 29 passing, hitting a leaping Chesson for the final, go ahead TD, and nailing a throw to Amara Darboh for a two point conversion to complete M’s scoring.
Speight did not have a prior completion in a game, but completed his first three in game time Saturday.
Michigan’s ground game was nothing special. The running game struggled. For example, D. Smith had 9 carries for 1.7 yards. Drake Johnson came on some though, hauling 10 times for 56-yards and a 5.5-yard average.
This year the Wolverine’s had to travel to Minneapolis to again possess one of the college football’s most venerable and storied collegiate football trophies, the Little Brown Jug. M now owns a 70-23-2 edge in the Jug series.
As you have heard by now, the competition for the oldest college football trophy originated after an M water jug was left in Minnesota hands by accident. M wrote a letter asking for it back and the Gophers replied by issuing a challenge to come and win it back. This inspired the Wolverine to do just that, and they met the challenge by claiming it back the ensuing year.
The trophy has gained lasting fame by ignoring its accidental origins. It is not abandoned or reclaimed by accident, or by re-enacting Caddy Shack gophers, but by being a visible representation of a serious football competition. The Gophers played some serious football against the Wolverines Saturday night.
It is a competition that had been improving under Minnesota Coach Jerry Kill and his resignation fueled their noisy home crowd which probably stirred in Coach Harbaugh residual memories of losing to the Gophers in the middle seventies.
Last Wednesday, the unwelcome and stunning news that Coach Kill was resigning before their game with the Wolverines on the advice of his medical advisers was announced.
Published reports said Coach Kill had long endured epilepsy, had suffered significant seizures during football seasons, had fought that serious disease tooth and nail, and avoided problems during a successful 2014 last, but sadly it had come to the point the that the situation was best fought without the chain of football coaching around his neck. Respected everywhere, he has endured over the course of a long and successful head coaching career. It was thought that his retirement might energize the Gophers and did it ever.
Kill was the Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2014, and had a 29-29 record as the Gopher head man.
The Minnesota DC, Tracey Claeys, had coached Minnesota during a prior Kill absence and again during Saturday’s game against the Wolverines.
Coach Kill’s rough and tumble approach to football, and his great defensive backfield, were much in evidence last Saturday. It was thought this resignation would add some extra emotion to the Gopher’s cause, and did it ever.
It was also thought that it was time for Jake Ruddock to make some plays. He did, but poor pass protection afforded a fumble, and an ill-advised, hurry up shovel pass which was tipped, provided a Gopher interception and early three point lead.
The game teetered back and forth in the first half, and ended with a late Gopher FG, securing a 16-14 lead at the half.
Offensively the Wolverines put up two TDs in the first half. Harbaugh went to FB Joe Kerridge to squeeze out some yardage to jump start a sluggish running game and he scored. Jake Butt had collared an 18 yard pass to enable the first TD drive, of the game .
Rudock hit a TD to Chesson, and Michigan had 14 points for the half. While the defense gave up a 1st half 52-yard TD run to the Gophers, they made three stops that resulted in Minnesota 1st half FGs. Holding the Gopher offense to FGs was also critical to the win.
M received to start the second half and produced a great 75-yard drive culminating in a Jabril Peppers run of six yards. What a run with a great burst to bull into multiple defenders at the goal line and into the end zone for his first offensive TD as a Wolverine. The lead was now 21-16.
Minnesota’s QB Mitch Leitner ran 24-yards for a TD to make it 21 to 23 Gophers. Then they hit a 45-yard FG, and it looked like M might be going down as they gave up a 5 point lead with about 10 minutes left, with their starting QB on the bench, injured.
Unexpectedly, inexperienced Wilton Speight was equal to the task, tossing a TD to the improving Chesson for a 12-yard TD, and another to Amara Darboh for a two-point conversion. This produced a final score of 29 to 23.
Then, the defense came through with its finest seconds of the game, and the lead stood.
There were a number of up sides to this game. The Jabril Peppers saga is just getting going at Michigan. He ran for 16-yards for a TD in impressive fashion, made a 41-yard punt return, had a 43-yard kick return and played fine defense. He was in action for an impressive 92 plays. Kenny Allen hit three of five KOs for touch backs. Blake O’Neill punted 5 times for a 44-yard average.
The offense and defense both did enough to preserve the win, notwithstanding too many penalties, defensive lapses to yield big plays, offensive errors and the lack of an effective running game.
After a severe disappointment two weeks ago, and a uniquely energized Gopher team this week, suffice it to happily tuck this one into the record books and return to the friendly confines of Michigan Stadium to confront Rutgers.