MINNEAPOLIS — Taco Charlton held his hands in front of his chest, his palms clasped together. He looked toward the sky.
The public-address announcer had just said the ruling on the field was that Mitch Leidner was down before he reached the end zone. No time remained on the game clock, giving Michigan a 29-26 win.
Next to Charlton, Mo Hurst pointed to the ground where Leidner fell. He didn’t know what happened on the game’s final play, but he was hoping with all of his heart that Leidner was down. Willie Henry pounded his chest repeatedly.
They waited, and there was nothing else they could do. They had half an inch to work with, half an inch to avoid a devastating defeat for the second game in a row. They had swarmed Leidner, bringing the quarterback to the ground in a heap, a group tackle so strong it was nearly impossible to pick out who exactly was most responsible.
Defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin knew it was coming, Harbaugh said after the game. He called his shot, and the defense was ready.
But after the tackle, there still was that chance, a very real chance, that the play could be overturned. Michigan did not have to look back further than its loss to Michigan State to realize that crazier things have happened.
The air was still, and the sanity of an entire team — an entire fanbase, really — hinged on one voice, that of the PA announcer, confirming that Leidner was down. All Charlton could do was pray.
Pray that for the second game in a row, the hopes and dreams of the Michigan football team would not crumble on a last-second play. Pray that Wilton Speight, the spunky redshirt freshman quarterback, had not led a comeback in vain.
Before Saturday, Speight had been an unknown commodity, a 6-foot-6 quarterback who came to Michigan by way of Virginia as a sought-after recruit but not a surefire prospect. He was accustomed to adversity. Speight missed his junior season of high school with a broken collarbone, suffered during his team’s first game of the season. Schools backed off recruiting him, but Michigan came on strong after he returned.
During his time on campus, he had stayed behind the scenes. Speight appeared in mop-up duty four times before Saturday, attempting four passes but completing none. Most assumed the playing time was solely to preserve Shane Morris’ redshirt.
But Saturday, when the time came and Jake Rudock lay on the ground in pain, it was Speight who entered the game, Speight whose arm Michigan’s prayers rested upon.
He looked shaky at first, airing out passes that never had a shot. Harbaugh noticed, too. The coach started “pounding on” his quarterback on the sidelines, hitting his shoulder pads to simulate the sensation of getting hit.
So when Speight took the field with 8:36 remaining in the game and his team trailing by five, he was ready. He completed one pass to Jake Butt, and then another to Khalid Hill after De’Veon Smith ran for a first down. He was rolling.
Michigan drove toward Minnesota’s rambunctious student section, where they chanted “Jerry! Jerry!” in honor of former coach Jerry Kill all night long. On 3rd-and-10, he faked a handoff to Drake Johnson and then pulled the ball back in. He delivered a dart to Jehu Chesson in the back of the end zone, and the Wolverines once again held the lead. After Speight stepped up in the pocket and flicked the ball to Amara Darboh for the two-point conversion, Michigan led by three.
And that’s where the score remained on the Golden Gophers’ following drive. The crowd yelled “Jerry! Jerry!” once again as music blared and Minnesota’s offense moved the ball down the field. The Golden Gophers got all the way to the half-yard line, when the nice man on the intercom relayed the Wolverines good news for the first time on the last drive. Drew Wolitarsky had not scored a touchdown with 19 seconds remaining. He had been down at the half-yard line.
But then, as the clock ticked down and down and down some more, just two seconds remained after Leidner threw an incomplete pass. Minnesota went for the score, and Michigan’s defense swarmed. And then it waited.
The seconds bled together. Charlton prayed and prayed. But then the booming voice graced the Wolverines with its presence. Leidner was ruled down.
Harbaugh threw his hands into the air. Durkin high-fived everyone in sight. Michigan’s players, an entire mass of them, rushed Minnesota’s sideline.
They didn’t know where the Little Brown Jug was, but they wanted it in their hands. It had spent the year in Minneapolis, the place where they did not believe it belonged. It didn’t take too long for them to find it. Jabrill Peppers emerged from the scrum, holding the trophy up in his arms while his teammates touched it.
Jon Falk, the former equipment manager and keeper of the jug, smiled as he watched the celebration unfold. The players ran around with the trophy, back and forth. They remembered last year’s game, when they lost the trophy for the first time since 2005.
“We got the f***ing trophy back,” one player yelled.
They brought it into the tunnel, where some of Michigan’s key players lingered for a moment longer, taking everything in. Captain Joe Bolden hugged everyone in sight, including Rudock, the starting quarterback’s jersey caked brown with turf stains. Desmond Morgan, a fifth-year senior, embraced the younger Speight, pulling him in tight.
Speight had done what once seemed hopeless, when his first few passes fell to the ground. He played it cool in his postgame press conference, saying he did nothing more than be ready like Harbaugh always tells him to be. After all, Speight said, you’re probably a fool if you don’t listen to Jim Harbaugh.
Harbaugh hoped Saturday’s game provided a lesson for his team, one that will stick with his players for the rest of their lives, until they’re 80 or 90 years old.
“You don’t give up,” Harbaugh said. “You keep fighting, keep playing.”
And then, when you’ve fought for every last half-yard, when you’ve been through heartbreak and hell and back again, when you’ve lost your starting quarterback and have inserted enough steel in your spine to build a skyscraper, maybe, just maybe, all of your prayers will be answered.
Cohen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @MaxACohen.