MINNEAPOLIS — Moments before the game ended, Michigan’s defensive players’ heads hung in defeat. They got up after falling, they held their hands on their hips or they stood still in the end zone. Minnesota tight end Drew Wolitarsky had beaten cornerback Channing Stribling on a deep pass, and quarterback Mitch Leidner hit him for what appeared to be the game-winning touchdown pass.
The nation’s best scoring defense apparently squandered a lead in the closing seconds. The crowd at TCF Bank Stadium erupted.
But Michigan defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin tells his team that the Wolverines just need a place to stand. Before the Golden Gophers could kick the extra point, the officials called for a review of the touchdown.
And they gave them that place to stand. It was at the half-yard line, with 19 seconds left.
“Whether that’s at the five-yard line or the half-yard line, give us another play to play,” said fifth-year senior linebacker Desmond Morgan. “Let us try to go out there and make a play on the ball.”
The clock restarted when the officials set the ball, and as it dropped under 10 seconds, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh tried to call a timeout to adjust to a shift in Minnesota’s formation. He didn’t get to the official in time, so the play ran, and Leidner fired an incomplete pass out to the flat.
Michigan’s defense still stood.
Now, just two seconds remained on the clock, and the Golden Gophers called timeout to call the final play, down 29-26. They chose to go for the touchdown — which, if you ask the Wolverines, was the wrong call.
“(Defensive line coach Greg Mattison) told us to be ready for sneak, and that’s kind of disrespecting the D-line to be running sneak,” said redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Mo Hurst Jr. “Because they’re expecting to get us knocked back.”
“We just talked to each other. We were like, ‘You know, it’s down to us, three inside guys, four guys.’ We just came out and knew we had to get off the ball and get off the field and get the win.”
That, they did. The officials ruled Leidner short of the goal line but reviewed the play, forcing the defense to wait on the field until they upheld the call on the field, and the race for the Little Brown Jug began.
Knowing Minnesota wouldn’t run a hard snap count inches from the goal line, the Wolverines jumped the snap to stop Leidner, and Hurst said they knew they succeeded right away.
“Our guys stepped up and built a wall there at the goal line,” Harbaugh said.
The shock of the moment was that it came at the end of perhaps the defense’s worst performance of the season. The Wolverines gave up season highs in total yards (461) and would have done the same for points if not for Michigan State’s last-second punt-return touchdown Oct. 17. They allowed points on four of the first six possessions. For comparison’s sake, they gave up points on just two of 59 possessions during their five-game winning streak earlier this season.
“Heck of a game plan by their offensive staff,” Harbaugh said. “They had some really good concepts. Their quarterback played a heck of a football game. Their receivers were finding the ball downfield, big explosive play. They were protecting the quarterback. Their backs were running hard and good.”
Leidner, in particular, completed 16 of 33 passes for 317 yards and a touchdown. He threw five passes for 20 yards or more, the last of which would have made Michigan’s defense the goat if it stood as a touchdown.
Instead, the Wolverines made one last stand, setting aside their mistakes to save the game, the trip and perhaps their Big Ten title hopes.
“You can’t let what’s going on in the rest of the game affect how you’re going to play the next play,” Morgan said. “That’s the attitude we just had there. That last down, on that goal line, the guys up front fought their butt off to not get knocked back on the line of scrimmage.”
Minnesota knocked back Michigan’s defense most of the night. But the Wolverines earned one last chance when it mattered, and they made it count.