They didn’t prepare for this. They couldn’t have. Since the spring, Michigan and Minnesota have prepared for the game they played Saturday night in Minneapolis. They organized personnel, and they installed schemes.
But the game didn’t warn either team of what happened in the two weeks leading up to Saturday. By now, you know the stories: The Wolverines had a win in their grasp against rival Michigan State before the Spartans picked up a fumbled snap on a punt and returned it for a touchdown with no time left.
The Golden Gophers lost to Nebraska on the same day, 48-25, but that paled in comparison to what they lost Wednesday. That morning, head coach Jerry Kill announced his retirement amid health concerns. In three days, Minnesota would have to play without Kill. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys took over and tried to get his team ready.
“It’s our obligation to be ready to go on Saturday,” Claeys said. “That’s one thing this game teaches you — it’s for tough people. I believe that. Tough people get through tough times.”
And the game didn’t warn either team of the final play, either. Fifty-nine minutes and 58 seconds of football had boiled down to this: Wolverines 29, Golden Gophers 26, Minnesota ball at the Michigan half-yard line.
Best push wins.
The crowd of 50,709 at TCF Bank Stadium watched in agony. Maybe the teams were ready. Maybe they had recovered from the adversity of the past two weeks. Maybe they hadn’t.
It didn’t matter. The play was coming anyway, ready or not.
Minnesota called its last timeout to draw up the play. The play clock wound down, and time seemed to crawl by. There was no escaping. The collision would transpire at the line of scrimmage. One team would win, grab the Little Brown Jug and start celebrating. The other would lose, go home and try to recover from more heartbreak.
The former was Michigan. The Wolverines stood firm, jumped the snap and stopped Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner shy of the goal line. They played a second straight game decided on the final play but redeemed themselves this time. They were heading home at 6-2 with the Little Brown Jug.
The latter was Minnesota. The Golden Gophers went for it all, trying to punch in the game-winning touchdown rather than kick a field goal and play for overtime. They said all week they would try to win for Kill, and they put it all on the line, only to come up short.
The chants came from the crowd all night: “JER-RY! JER-RY! JER-RY!” The first came when Claeys was introduced before the game. Another began after a video tribute to Kill played on the big screen during the first stoppage of play. The last chant occurred when Minnesota faced 1st-and-goal from the half-yard line, trying to secure the win.
The Golden Gophers had played without Kill before — he missed seven games in 2013 due to his health — but he always came back. Until this week, he had no reported incidents since that leave of absence, and Claeys said last week he had stopped worrying about it until Kill stepped down Wednesday. That left Claeys, his longtime assistant, to pick up the pieces.
“Is it a challenge? Sure, it’s a challenge,” Claeys said Wednesday. “But hey, life’s a challenge. Every day is, and you get up in the morning, it’s a new day and we’ll go attack it.”
Kill informed the team of his decision early Wednesday morning, and the Golden Gophers had to move on and adjust. The players made it to class that day, returned to practice that afternoon and turned in a gutsy effort Saturday.
They put up 26 points against what was the nation’s top scoring defense. Leidner was their leader, with 354 total yards and two touchdowns. He opened his night by running around frantically in front of the student section, carrying a maroon flag that read “JERRYSOTA” to fire up the crowd.
“Coach Kill is so important to the state of Minnesota,” Leidner told reporters after the game. “The entire student section loves him. He’s done so much for this team, this program. I was honored to be able to do that tonight.
“They asked me earlier in the week if I wanted to do it, and I said, ‘Hell yeah, I want to do that. I want to do that so badly.’ To get the opportunity to do that tonight for Coach Kill is something I’ll never forget.”
He almost ended his night on a similar high. His pass to Drew Wolitarsky with 19 seconds left was initially ruled a 22-yard, go-ahead touchdown pass. The crowd erupted into frenzy, until the video review overturned the touchdown, Michigan stopped Minnesota just short and the stadium went silent.
That was the position the Wolverines were in just two weeks ago. They, too, had to regroup. Coach Jim Harbaugh vowed the Wolverines would put steel in their spines to recover. The players insisted they moved on and were preparing for another game. Fifth-year senior punter Blake O’Neill and senior linebacker Joe Bolden, who took the biggest blows from the loss, rose back up, dusted themselves off and readied for another Saturday.
But there was no way of preparing for that kind of situation, no way of knowing what would happen next. Saturdays are like that sometimes.
They twist and turn throughout the day, spinning emotions and shifting momentum back and forth until finally, four hours later, it all comes down to one play.
There’s no preparing for that either. You do everything you can, work as hard as you can and show up. There’s no play call for when a coach has two seizures on the Tuesday of game week and has to step down. There’s no defensive scheme for letting a huge win slip away on a fumbled punt return as time expires.
There was none of that. They lined up, and Michigan emerged victorious.
That was it. The game chose a winner and a loser. Now they both go forward from that. Five days from now, another Saturday will beckon, ready or not.