MINNEAPOLIS — It came down to one play, a few inches and a lesson Jim Harbaugh hopes his players carry with them for the rest of their lives.
After a goal-line stand on the game’s final play, the No. 15 Michigan football team escaped TCF Bank Stadium with a win over Minnesota, 29-26.
“It feels tremendous for the way the players played, and a phenomenal learning experience for our men to be able to win a tough one,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a great learning experience because it reinforces everything you tell them about never giving up and fighting ‘til the end.”
With 19 seconds remaining, Golden Gophers’ quarterback Mitch Leidner connected with Drew Wolitarsky for 22 yards and what looked like a go-ahead touchdown. But a booth review showed that Wolitarsky’s knee touched at the half-yard line, forcing Minnesota to hurry back to the line and try to punch it in.
The clock began running as the Golden Gophers made a formation shift, splitting a receiver out wide to pass after initially lining up in a running formation. Leidner’s throw was incomplete, though, and by the time the ball hit the ground, 17 seconds had run off the clock. Just two remained.
Trailing by three, conventional wisdom would have told Minnesota to kick a field goal. But in an emotional contest just three days after head coach Jerry Kill retired due to health concerns, interim coach Tracy Claeys went for the win.
Leidner ran a quarterback sneak with two seconds left, but he was stuffed short, and Michigan reclaimed the Little Brown Jug.
“We like to call that giving us a place to stand,” said redshirt freshman safety Jabrill Peppers. “We got it down at the half-inch-yard line, I don’t know how much closer you can get.
“I thought they were gonna try to do one of their trick plays, but we felt good thinking that they were gonna go sneak, and they went sneak, and the big guys up front blew up the line of scrimmage and we came out of here with a victory.”
The Wolverines (3-1 Big Ten, 6-2 overall) have been able to rely on their defense all season to escape tricky situations. Saturday night was about as tricky as it gets.
Even outside of Minnesota’s final drive, the game was filled with theatrics, highlighted by an unsung hero, redshirt freshman quarterback Wilton Speight, who threw his first career touchdown to put the Wolverines ahead late.
With 4:27 left in the third quarter, Golden Gophers defensive end Andrew Stelter laid a fierce hit on fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Rudock as Rudock began sliding to the ground after a scramble.
Rudock left the game and did not return, throwing Speight into the fire. Coming into the game, Speight had not completed a pass all season. Fittingly, he struggled at first, failing to earn a first down his first three series.
“The first couple drives, I was not really comfortable,” Speight said. “I was probably flushing myself out of the pocket when I did not need to.
“I talked to (passing game coordinator Jedd) Fisch on the phone before that last drive and he said, ‘Look, just relax and have fun and smile because we know you can do it, and the team believes in you, so just go out and do what you can.’ ”
Starting on the Minnesota 40-yard line with eight and a half minutes left, after the Michigan defense forced a crucial three-and-out, Speight completed an eight-yard pass to junior tight end Jake Butt on first down. It was his first completion of the season, and it set the tone for the entire drive.
Speight found redshirt sophomore tight end Khalid Hill to get to the red zone, and four plays later, at the 12-yard line, Speight made the biggest play of his young career.
With 4:57 remaining, he found redshirt junior receiver Jehu Chesson in the back of the end zone over the middle, putting Michigan up by one. Speight then connected with redshirt junior receiver Amara Darboh for the two-point conversion on the next play.
“What an invaluable learning experience for Wilton Speight,” Harbaugh said. “To get his first action and do it with a fourth-quarter comeback, and then kind of dramatic style. That’ll be really good for his confidence as well.”
Before Rudock’s injury, and far before the final drive, the Wolverines looked to be in trouble, especially after they let a 14-3 lead slip away at the half.
Minnesota (1-3, 4-4) opened the scoring with a field goal 4:47 into the game, but Peppers turned two returns into great field position for the Wolverines. Michigan capitalized on both, as Rudock found Chesson for one touchdown, and Peppers ran in another out of the wildcat formation, putting Michigan up by 11 early in the second quarter.
Peppers was indispensable for the Wolverines, turning in 100 all-purpose yards and his first career touchdown.
“I tried to do what I am coached to do and get us in the best position possible,” Peppers said. “That definitely worked well tonight.”
But Leidner brought Minnesota back, throwing a 52-yard touchdown to Rashad Still and leading two field goal drives to give the Golden Gophers a 16-14 lead at the half. Leidner finished with 317 yards passing, but even that wasn’t enough to earn the win.
If he had thrown for 318, it may have been.