The Gophers had seven more starters go down with injuries Saturday. They had fallen behind the Ohio Bobcats three times.
A sellout crowd of 53,917 for homecoming at TCF Bank Stadium was hot and restless. Was this how the nonconference schedule would end, with a loss to a Mid-American Conference team?
With 2 minutes, 22 seconds remaining, the Gophers trailed by four points. The offense needed a touchdown and was 78 yards from the Ohio end zone.
“I pretty much just tell the guys, ‘It’s now or never. We’ve got a great opportunity here,’ ” quarterback Mitch Leidner said.
For Leidner, this is becoming old hat. He spearheaded another last-minute touchdown, just as he’d done two weeks earlier at Colorado State. After a few more anxious moments on defense, the Gophers were celebrating another win, 27-24.
Afterward, former All-Big Ten running back Laurence Maroney joined the party, as the Gophers improved to 3-1 heading into next week’s Big Ten opener at Northwestern.
“Laurence Maroney summed it up in the locker room with me: ‘Just play 60 minutes, Coach, 60 minutes,’ ” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said.
The Gophers made every second count against Ohio (3-1), which was looking for its first victory over a Big Ten team since it stunned Penn State on the road in 2012.
Leidner completed four of six passes on the winning drive, though one incompletion went right through the hands of Ohio cornerback Ian Wells. For the game, Leidner completed 22 of 32 passes for a career-high 264 yards with no interceptions and just one sack.
Rodney Smith was the go-to player on the winning drive with a 15-yard screen pass and three rushes for 19 yards. He finished with 94 yards rushing and 58 receiving.
“We’re a very confident group,” Smith said. “We’ve done it before, gone out and had a game-winning drive. It’s always a good feeling when you know nobody on the field is nervous, and you can count on people to make a play.”
At the 3-yard line, the Gophers called upon true freshman tailback Shannon Brooks, who had given the Gophers a huge spark with a 40-yard touchdown run in the first half. Brooks took the handoff from Leidner and went in for another touchdown, this one with 30 seconds remaining, as the stadium exploded with noise.
“We’ve got to continue to do that,” Kill said of the late-game drives. “In the Big Ten, there’s going to be close games. I’ve said all along it’s going to come down to a field goal here, a touchdown there. You’ve got to be able to make a few plays.”
But Ohio wasn’t finished. A familiar scenario unfolded. After scoring their go-ahead touchdown at Colorado State, on Leidner’s 22-yard strike to KJ Maye, the Gophers let the Rams come back for a tying field goal. Minnesota needed overtime to pull out that 23-20 win.
This time, Ohio’s Daz Patterson returned the kickoff to the Minnesota 43. Three plays later, Ohio lined up a 53-yard field goal attempt with 7 seconds remaining. But the Gophers called timeout, and kicker Josiah Yazdani was flagged for delay of game after drilling the ball through the uprights.
Kill said he couldn’t ever remember seeing that penalty called on a kicker. It pushed Ohio back to the 41. It would have been a 58-yard kick, so coach Frank Solich dialed up a Hail Mary pass.
“That’s my fault,” Solich said. “I should have gone for the 58 because the ball carried enough to give him a shot at the end.”
The Gophers defended the final pass with a secondary that was missing three senior starters — safeties Damarius Travis and Antonio Johnson and cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun. Another cornerback, KiAnte Hardin, was injured as well.
“We called another timeout, and it gave us a chance to put everybody in the right place,” Kill said. “Because we had so many injuries … we were scrambling.”
The pass from Ohio senior Derrius Vick made it to the goal line, but safety Ace Rogers swatted it away. The Gophers and their fans heaved a huge sigh of relief.
“It’s good to see us come back and win the game,” Kill said. “I told our kids in the locker room that I couldn’t be more proud because of what they went through today.”