Tracy Claeys called Jerry Kill late Saturday, after the Gophers’ 29-26 loss to Michigan, and it wasn’t just to commiserate. Claeys needed advice on clock management.
For 21 years, those two had worked closely together, talking through key decisions over their headsets.
When Kill retired for health reasons Wednesday, Claeys stepped in as interim coach, with full confidence he can handle the job long term. In three days, he tackled countless tasks and somehow got his 13-point underdog team to outgain the Wolverines 461-296.
One thing Claeys didn’t do was tab another coach to replace Kill as a second voice on clock management. He became a committee of one, even though he’s a defensive coordinator, who has much to learn about the team’s offensive playbook.
So, when the officials overturned a potential winning touchdown, ruling that receiver Drew Wolitarsky was down at the 1-foot line, the Gophers suddenly appeared lost in their own world.
There were 19 seconds remaining. The Gophers were lined up, but when the referee started the game clock, they went through a series of shifts and motions, costing 12 seconds before Mitch Leidner finally took the shotgun snap. When his throw landed incomplete, only two seconds remained.
“If I’d have known that motion shift’s going to take that long, we would have [spiked] the ball,” Claeys said Sunday. “It still would have left 16, probably 17 seconds to go … and we probably could have gotten two more plays out of it rather than one.”
“That’s on me,” he added.
Leidner later said he was surprised the game clock started. The play itself — where he rolls right and throws back to the left for tight end Brandon Lingen — produced a wide-open touchdown at Purdue three weeks earlier. Michigan wasn’t fooled.
“They were playing man [coverage] and being aggressive, and so I agree we needed a shift and motion in there on a short throw to try and confuse them,” Claeys said. “And then, if it was incomplete, we’d still have had time to run one more play.
“So if I made an error in judgment, it was the fact that I thought, ‘Hey, we’ll get two shots here and be happy.’ ”
Claeys had zero regrets about his decision to pass up a tying field goal, instead trying a quarterback sneak.
Six inches. That’s all the Gophers needed, but the pile didn’t move. Leidner got stuffed, and Michigan took back the Little Brown Jug.
“I’d do it again,” Claeys said. “You look at that picture and how close that ball is to the goal line, you’ve got to be able to get that thing in there. And we were having trouble stopping them on the short field — that played a part in it. So hey, let’s do this now rather than take the chance and go into overtime.”
Claeys said he always second-guesses himself as a coach, believing that’s one way to improve.
“I’m not afraid to admit, that’s a reason I called Coach [Kill],” Claeys said. “At the end of games, it was me and him that handled the game management on the headsets. And I lost my game management person, too.”
Added Claeys: “I will get somebody assigned now on the staff to help me out after going through that because that was one of the things in the whirlwind that I didn’t think of.”
Last week, Claeys talked about how he has similar philosophies to Kill but a different personality. Kill wears his emotions on his sleeve and seems wounded at times by criticism. Claeys insists he doesn’t even follow local sports coverage.
He said this loss bothered him less than two others this year — presumably to Northwestern and Nebraska — where the Gophers didn’t play hard. Those losses “grind at you,” he said. But the Gophers outplayed Michigan most of the night.
“If it makes people feel good to blame me, then hey, that’s great,” Claeys said. “I will take all the blame in the world, but I could sleep at night because I could tell you that we did our best to get ready for that football game.”