Mitch Leidner threw what he thought was the winning touchdown pass against No. 15 Michigan on Saturday night and jogged to the sideline with tears in his eyes.
The Gophers wanted so badly to win for Jerry Kill, who had retired three days earlier for health reasons, and at that moment, it seemed like mission accomplished.
But the play was under review. Leidner had thrown a perfect pass, and Drew Wolitarsky had made a diving catch, but the referees overturned the touchdown, correctly ruling that he was down a half-yard short of the goal line.
Nineteen mind-boggling seconds later, the Gophers and interim coach Tracy Claeys walked off the field in stunned disbelief, as Michigan escaped with a 29-26 victory before an announced crowd of 50,709 at TCF Bank Stadium.
“After they called [the touchdown] back, we were like, ‘We’ve got 20 seconds left on the clock; there’s no way we aren’t going to put the ball in from the half-yard-line,’ ” Gophers linebacker De’Vondre Campbell said. “For the game to end the way it did is just — I’m still in shock.”
The Gophers (4-4, 1-3 Big Ten) missed a chance to knock off their highest-ranked opponent since they defeated No. 11 Purdue under Glen Mason in 2005.
And after winning at Michigan last year, the Gophers said goodbye to the Little Brown Jug again, just as they have every year after they’ve won it since 1963.
Michigan (6-2, 3-1) came in leading the nation in scoring defense (9.3 points per game) and total defense (210.6 yards per game).
The Gophers outgained the Wolverines 461-296. It was a night of several career highs — passing yards for Leidner (317), receiving yards for tight end Brandon Lingen (111), field goals for Ryan Santoso (four) and tackles for Campbell (13).
But it all added up to heartbreak.
The Gophers led 26-21 lead with less than nine minutes remaining, when Claeys used Santoso to punt from Minnesota’s end zone, instead of Peter Mortell, the reigning Big Ten Punter of the Year.
Claeys said Mortell wasn’t injured, but the All-Big Ten punter appeared to be in sweat pants on the sideline at that point. Two quarters earlier, Mortell had hit a low punt that Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers returned 41 yards, and Claeys said after the game that was why Mortell didn’t punt from the end zone.
Given his chance to punt, Santoso did not hit a good one, and it took a bad bounce, giving Michigan the ball at Minnesota’s 40-yard line. That set up Michigan’s go-ahead touchdown, and a two-point conversion.
Michigan took its three-point lead with 4:57 remaining, but Leidner led the Gophers right back down the field. Rodney Smith took a screen pass on third-and-17 and dashed 17 yards for a first down. On fourth-and-5, with the game on the line, Leidner found KJ Maye for 12 yards.
The pass to Wolitarsky, toward the right pylon, seemed like a potential defining moment.
“The replay got it right,” Claeys said. “After I saw the first one, I knew there was a chance that it was going to be marked short. And so that’s why we had the offense ready to get right up there on the line and get going.”
As soon as the referee made the ruling, he started the clock, and precious seconds ticked off while the Gophers motioned into position. By the time Leidner rolled right and threw incomplete to Lingen, only two seconds remained.
Leidner said he didn’t know the game clock would be running, so he rushed that play a bit.
“We have some shifts and motions on that play as well,” he said. “So we’re trying to go as quickly as we can in that situation.”
Claeys called his final timeout. Rather than taking the short field goal and heading to overtime, he went for it.
Leidner said he couldn’t remember being stopped on a quarterback sneak, but Michigan’s top-ranked defense finally put up a wall. The pile didn’t move. The Gophers were short.
“I’d call a timeout and do it again,” Claeys said. “I just think in those situations you’ve got to be able to get half a yard. If it’s outside the 1-yard line, hey, we’ll kick it and move on. But in that situation, I felt like we could get it.”
The disappointment of not getting it, of not winning this one for Kill, will stick with the Gophers for a long time.