Lost in the nightmarish ending to last week’s Michigan game was the fact Mitch Leidner and the rest of the Gophers offense delivered, perhaps, their most impressive performance of the season.
Michigan came in leading the nation in several key defensive categories, but the Gophers outgained the Wolverines 461 yards to 296. The infuriating finish — failing to score after driving to the 1-foot line with 19 seconds remaining — doesn’t even materialize if Leidner and others hadn’t delivered several clutch plays to set the stage.
They’ll need even more of them Saturday, when the Gophers play at top-ranked Ohio State.
“This is what you sign up for,” Leidner said, “playing prime-time football against the No. 1 team in the country.”
As gut-wrenching as the Michigan loss was, Leidner is determined to treat it as another learning experience. He doesn’t want to halt the momentum the offense has built since the second half of the Purdue game.
After outscoring the Boilermakers 31-7 after halftime, the Gophers turned in a decent offensive performance in their 48-25 loss to Nebraska. Leidner passed for 301 yards in that game, then a career high.
The junior added 317 passing yards against Michigan, becoming the first Gophers quarterback to post back-to-back 300-yard passing games since Cory Sauter in 1995.
“I think a lot of it has to do with [Leidner’s] health,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “He’s probably as healthy as he’s been since the beginning of the season. He’s standing in, delivering the ball better than he has because he’s feeling better. And because of that, he’s more accurate.”
It’s easier to pass when the running game is clicking, but the Gophers have yo-yoed from good to bad all season. The team’s rushing totals the past five weeks have gone: 204, 74, 326, 65, 144.
Michigan’s run defense had squeezed other teams, but Rodney Smith loosened things up with 12 carries for 74 yards. With Leidner in a decent groove, the Gophers still liked their chances when they got the ball with 4:57 remaining, trailing 29-26.
On the first play of that drive, the Gophers drew a 12-yard chop block penalty, making it first-and-22 from their own 13-yard line.
“Earlier in the year,” Limegrover said, “that’s an insurmountable climb to make right there.”
But Leidner, Smith and KJ Maye led the Gophers into field goal range. Then Leidner hit Drew Wolitarsky with a perfectly placed pass toward the right pylon.
The referees ruled Wolitarsky down at the 1-foot line, overturning a touchdown call. Still, if a drive like this against a premier defense once seemed like an insurmountable climb, the Gophers suddenly were right beneath the summit.
By now, the next 19 seconds have been well-documented. After the replay review, the officials started the game clock. The Gophers ran a play with several shifts and motions. When Leidner’s pass for Brandon Lingen fell incomplete, only two seconds remained.
“I know [interim coach Tracy Claeys] keeps blaming himself, but I should have been the one to say, ‘Hey, we need to spike it here,’ ” Limegrover said.
Leidner rolled right on the play, and then looked back to the left for Lingen, but Michigan had the play well-scouted.
“I knew the clock was going to run,” Limegrover said. “But I felt like we had this. To be honest with you, I called the play with the full expectation we were going to score a touchdown. So when it didn’t happen, then we had to go to Plan B.”
Leidner admitted he didn’t know the game clock would be running and said the Gophers were lucky to get off another play. They tried a quarterback sneak, and Leidner got stuffed for no gain.
What lessons can be learned?
“Coach Claeys has talked about time management, just about having a better plan, I guess you could say,” Leidner said. “Other than that, Coach Claeys said he would do it all over again, and I would do it all over again, too. I love taking the shot, taking the chance to win that ballgame.”