A Minnesota team that watched head coach Jerry Kill resign earlier in the week was certainly heading into Saturday’s rendezvous with the Michigan Wolverines inspired.
More inspired than a Michigan team that, you know, lost on a last-second blocked punt to an in-state rival. A seesaw battle throughout the Halloween night, the Wolverines would stave off the Gophers on the final play to retain the Little Brown Jug with a 29-26 victory.
But any Wolverines fan knows that it never comes easy.
Once Jake Rudock threw an interception on Michigan’s opening drive, the Gophers capitalized on the miscue by tallying a field goal to lead 3-0. The Wolverines would respond nicely with a pair of unanswered scores, De’Veon Smith and Jehu Chesson the beneficiaries.
Once Michigan held a 14-3, things became extremely quirky in Minneapolis. The defense partially lapsed and the Gophers absorbed their own dash of luck; almost to the extent that when tight end Brandon Lingen hauled in a tipped pass off the hands of Wolverines DB Dymonte Thomas, one of the on-air analysts preached a condescending chorus to quarterback Mitch Leidner and his offense.
“You’d have to play the lottery tonight. Play the Powerball, Mitch.”
The Minnesota bounce translated to three more points for the Golden Gophers with Ryan Santoso drilling a 32-yard field goal as the halftime horn sounded. Michigan trailed 16-14 heading into the locker room.
The Wolverines constructed a tailor-made drive to open the second half, traveling 75 yards that took just 3:38, topped off by a Jabrill Peppers rushing touchdown. It was a drive that was supported by a defensive pass interference, mixture of wide receiver packages, and a reverse to Chesson that sprung the offense to adequate field position.
Oct 31, 2015; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Michigan Wolverines safety Jabrill Peppers (5) and cornerback Jourdan Lewis (26) defend Minnesota Golden Gophers wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky (82) in the first half at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
The defense–which has thoroughly suffered since the meeting with Sparty two weeks ago–has hit a minor regression. It’s undoubtedly difficult to produce the gaudy defensive statistics week by week. Yet, a 24-yard quarterback scamper by Mitch Leidner to put the Gophers back up 23-21 was rather “un-Michigan-like.” A core that had such success halting the big play was consistently gashed for big plays on Saturday, and to a subpar offense.
To heighten the blow on the other side, as the third quarter waned, Rudock suffered an injury while attempting slide. Wilton Speight then took over for two plays, resulting in a Michigan punt for a touchback. Rudock limped off on his own power and failed to return to action. On Michigan’s opening possession of the fourth quarter, the blueprint frequently flipped to the Wildcat featuring Peppers and Chesson.
With 8:36 remaining in the fourth and the Wolverines traveling by two, Speight completed the first and second passes of his collegiate career with throws to tight ends Jake Butt and Kalid Hill. His third would connect with Chesson for a 12-yard TD strike, a two-point conversion added to increase the newborn lead to six.
As Leidner led his troops down the field and extended the drive, fans erupted in what they thought was a touchdown for wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky with :19 remaining. The play was reviewed, the referees declaring the ball his knee down just shy. Lining up for a quarterback sneak, Leidner would be stuffed on the last play, Michigan sealing up the victory.
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A win, yes, but credit has to be dished to the Golden Gophers.
For Minnesota’s offense, it did a spectacular job of using star-studded wide receiver K.J. Maye as a decoy for much of the evening. Lingen topped all pass catchers with 111 yards, tearing apart Michigan’s secondary on a few key drives. It was an offense that topped 400 yards while putting a physical defense in partial disarray for much of the night.
Going forward, Michigan’s scheme remains a question with the prognosis of Rudock still undecided. The Wolverines may get a lighter test next week once the Rutgers Scarlet Knights travel to Ann Arbor.