The Gophers football team trailed Michigan 14-7 at home in the third quarter Saturday afternoon. The Gophers had an opportunity to trim that deficit with a 37-yard field-goal attempt on fourth-and-16 midway through the quarter.
Easy decision, right?
Jerry Kill gambled. And it backfired.
Kill signaled in a fake field goal designed to sneak a quick pass to quarterback Philip Nelson near the sideline. Michigan recognized it late and stopped Nelson after a 5-yard gain, well short of the first down.
Why take such a risk in that situation?
"We haven't beat Michigan in 35 years at home," Kill said afterward. "You've got to go make a play. We ran that same situation -- I don't know, 10 years ago -- and we scored and I was a hero. In this situation, it's 14-7, a field goal gets it to 14-10, but they're moving the ball and we know they're a pretty good football team. Nobody covered [Nelson] and we just threw it behind him. We're just trying to make something happen at that point."
Instead, that play symbolized a day of missed opportunities for the Gophers, a chance to beat an average Michigan team (by its lofty standards) that played without dynamic quarterback Denard Robinson.
Naturally, Michigan took the gift and scored on its ensuing possession to gain control of what eventually turned into a 35-13 victory at TCF Bank Stadium.
But forget the final score for a second. It doesn't tell the whole story. This wasn't the 58-0 drubbing the Gophers endured last season. This wasn't the typical one-sided snoozer that precedes the Wolverines packing up the Little Brown Jug for another year.
The Gophers competed hard and gave themselves a chance to win the game. They just blew their opportunity. Simple as that.
They squandered terrific field position in the first quarter. They failed to score touchdowns twice inside the 5-yard line. They had some head-scratching play calls at key moments. And they allowed a guy (Devin Gardner) who hadn't taken a snap at quarterback all season to throw for 234 yards and complete passes of 45, 47 and 47 yards.
"We didn't make plays when we had opportunities," Kill said.
The fake field goal call -- and the entire sequence of plays that led up to it -- highlighted their frustrating performance. The Gophers had the ball on first down at the 13. A run by Donnell Kirkwood lost 1 yard. On second down, offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover called a trick play to K.J. Maye that lost 5 yards. Nelson threw incomplete on third down.
Rather than play it safe and get points, Kill made a risky call with the fake.
"We're going to try and win a football game," he said. "It doesn't matter what you do in life, if you [take] the conservative approach in everything we do, sometimes that doesn't work."
He's right, but that wasn't the time to gamble. Kill's willingness to be aggressive and take risks and show confidence in his players is commendable. It shows he has guts. But he needed to play the percentages in that situation. This wasn't fourth-and-2 or even fourth-and-7. They needed 16 yards.
That decision makes more sense in games where the Gophers feel severely overmatched and a go-for-broke mindset is their only real hope. That wasn't the case Saturday. The fact they were in the game and were competitive didn't feel like a fluke. They didn't need to trick their way into anything.
The game snowballed on the Gophers after that. They had more chances to make things interesting, but they failed to capitalize in those moments. And the Wolverines pounced on every opportunity, even without their star quarterback.
That's why the Gophers looked so deflated after the game. This wasn't like last season when the Wolverines jumped on them from the start and gave them no chance. They were embarrassed that day. They were frustrated on Saturday.
"Really the game was pretty simple," Kill said. "The University of Michigan made some plays to win the game, and we couldn't make a play in critical times. They made more plays than us."
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org