ANN ARBOR, MICH. – Three years earlier, as freshmen, they had walked off the same field as 58-0 losers, humiliated and numb, as Michigan went through yet another celebration with the Little Brown Jug.
So on Saturday evening, with darkness falling over the Big House, the Gophers seniors and fourth-year coach Jerry Kill took a moment to bask in the silence. An announced crowd of 102,296 had mostly exited.
The Gophers had been 1-22 against Michigan dating to 1987, but they won this one with relative ease, 30-14, and then stormed across the field to grab the 111-year-old jug from the Wolverines sideline.
It was their first time hoisting the ancient relic since 2005. And this was their most lopsided win over Michigan since their 16-0 win at Memorial Stadium in 1977.
“A hundred thousand [in attendance], and not one peep in the entire stadium,” senior Cameron Botticelli said. “That’s [one of the] seven wonders of the world. That’s one of the best feelings as a defender that you can have.”
The defense spent the day tormenting Michigan starting quarterback Shane Morris, forcing him into two critical third-quarter turnovers, as they stretched a three-point halftime lead to 27-7. Michigan finished with 171 yards — 83 rushing and 88 receiving.
Disgusted Wolverines fans chewed on their game programs and bellowed at beleaguered coach Brady Hoke. He finally replaced Morris with Devin Gardner in the fourth quarter, but it was too little too late. The Wolverines fell to 2-3, leaving Hoke firmly on the hot seat.
The Gophers (4-1) celebrated by dumping ice water on Kill, and then hoisting the jug before a few hundred fans dressed in maroon and gold who had made their way to the stadium’s front rows.
“Minnesota, give them credit, and give Jerry [Kill] credit,” Hoke said. “But at the same time we’re very disappointed in how we played football today.”
This one was personal for Kill. After losing to Hoke 58-0 in 2011, in their first year at these respective programs, Kill had to miss last year’s trip to Michigan because of a seizure. The Gophers lost that one 42-13.
This time, “I got to hug my wife, and my mom’s out there,” Kill said. “I didn’t participate last year. I let a lot of other people down. To be honest with you, I’m more happy for the people in the state of Minnesota.”
Kill spoke of how proud he was of David Cobb, who rushed 32 times for 183 yards against a Michigan team that came in leading the Big Ten in total defense. Kill also praised sophomore quarterback Mitch Leidner, who missed last week’s game with a knee and toe injury but returned to complete 14 of 22 passes for 167 yards. Leidner ran for one touchdown and threw for one.
It was 7-7 with 2:17 remaining in the first half, when Leidner and Cobb led the team on a drive that started at Minnesota’s 1. The drive ended with Ryan Santoso’s 24-yard field goal as time expired on the half.
How critical was that? The Gophers are 18-0 under Kill in games they lead at halftime, 0-22 in games they trail at halftime and 3-0 when tied at halftime.
But leading 10-7, they were hardly content. Botticelli said Kill’s message was “come out and be more physical, be more explosive and don’t let up.”
The defense continued setting the tone, forcing two quick three-and-outs. Santoso’s 48-yard field goal stretched the lead to 13-7. Then the floodgates opened.
Theiren Cockran deflected a pass from Morris, and the ball fluttered to linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, who ran 30 yards for a touchdown.
Morris fumbled on the next possession, and Cockran recovered at Michigan’s 30-yard line. A few plays later, Leidner hit Maxx Williams with a shovel pass for a 1-yard touchdown, making it 27-7.
Michigan never recovered.
“It’s unbelievable,” Leidner said. “I’ve never had a feeling like this, I don’t think, in my life.”
When Leidner took a knee on the game’s final play, Williams led a group of Gophers across the 50-yard line, seeking the jug. But Joe Bjorklund, a junior offensive lineman from Rosemount, suddenly emerged with the famous trophy, about 20 yards down the sideline.
“When Coach Hoke started walking off, [Michigan’s equipment staff was] opening up a box or something,” Bjorklund said. “Everyone took off the other way. I tried to wave them back, and they weren’t coming, so I said, ‘Whatever. I’m going to get the jug.’
“It felt great. Being a guy from Minnesota, I’ve followed this game for my entire life. It means everything.”