JUG! JUG! JUG! WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!! Yes, it's Tuesday morning and I'm still fired up! What makes the highest highs as a football fan possible are having experienced the lowest lows. Gopher fans unfortunately know the lows better than most, which was what Minnesota's history vs Michigan was preparing me for. I could not have been more down prior to the game, though part of that can be blamed on being at work at 545 am on a Saturday morning. Still, thanks to 2003, the past two years of getting blown out, and all that bad history since 1968, I was fully expecting to be let down yet again. Here comes yet another blowout loss in a game that it looked like on paper Minnesota had a legitimate shot at winning.
Instead, here came Jerry Kill.
JERRY KILL, EXORCIST OF DECADES OF GOPHER FOOTBALL DEMONS OF DOUBT
Matt's math sorcery in his Models and Bottles post from last week said this should be a winnable game for the Gophers, giving them a 47% chance at an outright victory, which differed wildly from the 12 point spread favoring Michigan. Well as we now know, that 12 spread was the product of a public team with fans full of Michigan Men who couldn't fathom losing at home to Minnesota and...yeah probably more than a few Gopher fans like myself who couldn't fathom it either. Well Jerry Kill looked at the ugly history of this "rivalry" and said history be damned, he was winning this game. More than that, his team played from the opening kick like a they believed it too.
I haven't been a Gopher fan as long as most of you here, as my fandom goes only back to the early Aughts. Still, I had seen enough in my time since then to look at this game and know better than to get my hopes up. After all, this was Michigan and no matter how down their program had been lately and looked to be sinking to new lows currently (and we had no idea how much lower it could go), Minnesota couldn't just walk into The Big House and outplay the Wolverines in every single facet (well except sending your QB back out on the field with a concussion. Brady Hoke is in a class by himself there).
But that is exactly what happened. This team carried itself from the get-go like they were playing to win and expected to win, a stark contrast to the game two weeks ago vs TCU where the offense struggled mightily and the defense got put behind the eight ball repeatedly in a game that was over before the end of the first half. Even though they didn't score their points until less than four minutes to go in the first half, the way they were moving the ball looked and felt differently. An offensive line that got pushed around by TCU were opening big holes for RB David Cobb, who ran like a man possessed. And QB Mitch Leidner, who would have had trouble completing passes against air vs the Horned Frogs, was throwing the ball and making decisions confidently and with purpose.
And the defense? More on the them in a bit, but that was obviously a mauling of epic proportions. Special teams played well, it was just a Gopher team that played like they believed they were the better team on the field, and the end results left no doubt that they were.
THE DRIVE BEFORE THE HALF WAS HUGE- AND PERHAPS TELLING
Two weeks prior vs TCU, the Gophers had the ball with under 2 minutes remaining and all THREE timeouts. What did they do? Elected to run three times and punt, essentially waiving the white flag. Saturday, Minnesota punted on their first four possessions before finally getting on the board with a long 7 play, 72 yard drive for their first TD late in the second quarter. With 2:17 left the Gophers got the ball back on the 1 foot line. Now here, quite literally in the shadow of your own goal posts, was not a time to get overly aggressive. Tied 7-7 the last thing you want is a turnover down here to give Michigan any kind of momentum or positive anything. Not surprisingly the first two plays were runs for Cobb where he gained five total yards to set up third and 5 when Michigan called a timeout with 1:31 left. At this point I fully expected another run play, and really wouldn't have been mad about it. To that point Minnesota's defense had flat dominated Michigan, and you would have been hard pressed to argue that the risk of dropping back to pass more than outweighed the potential reward.
So what does Kill do? He has OC Matt Limegrover dial up the play-action pass, which worked to perfection for a 21 yard completion to little used (at least in the passing game) TE Lincoln Plsek. A gutsy, fantastic play-call that showed both Kill and Limey have gigantic brass...stones and stepped up to use them here. From their own 22 David Cobb pretty much took over with three runs for 42 yards and an 11 yard reception, with Leidner mixing in a pass to Maxxxxxxx and a three yard run of his own to get the Gophs to the Michigan 7 yard line with 7 seconds left. Time out Minnesota, and Ryan Santoso came on to nail the chippy and the Gophers led 10-7 and would never look back.
I don't have stats to prove it, but let me say this- how can that whole drive NOT have instilled a giant dose of confidence into the entire Gopher team? Their coaches put faith in the players in a tough situation and they came through with a 92 yard drive in under two minutes to take a lead they would never give back. And who knows what that did to Michigan either, as that's about as big of a back-breaker as you can have.
As a fan, I can't even describe how I felt, mostly because I was in awe of what I had just witnessed. Kill has shown aggressive tendencies and a gambler's mentality at times in the past couple of years where he's gone for it when you wouldn't expect it, but to see it here seemed to go against everything we had seen the first four weeks where the main offensive goal seemed to be "MITIGATE RISKS! DON'T THROW THE BALL!" I I have no idea what changed from the TCU game to that moment on 3rd and 5, but I love that Coach Kill had the nerve to go for it and have it pay off.
OF COURSE, I WAS NERVOUS FOR MOST OF THE SECOND HALF
I just kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. They had opportunities early in the third quarter that they couldn't take advantage of- like BBC dropping a pick six, or the Gophers getting the ball at the Michigan 39 not once but twice in a row yet coming away with only three points. But then two plays later is when De'Vondre Campbell pulled out the dagger with a pick of a tipped Morris pass and returned it 30 yards for some breathing room at 20-7. The D would follow up that by recovering a Morris fumble, which Leidner turned into an eventual one-yard shovel pass to Maxxxxx for the score and it was 27-7. Even when Santoso lowered the boom to make it 30-7 early in the fourth I wasn't quite ready to celebrate yet.
All game I had been waiting for Hoke to pull Shane Morris due to ineffectiveness- or- eventually- because he was so battered, bruised and CONCUSSED that he could barely stand- for Devin Gardner. That Gardner didn't start in the first place was amazing to me considering how he destroyed the Gophers in the two previous meetings; if you couldn't decide on who to start, wouldn't prior history be something that might tip the scales? But he didn't and once Gardner eventually entered the game midway through the fourth quarter, thankfully it was too little too late. He showed some of that play-making ability in leading the team for a TD to cut the score to 30-14 with still 5:23 to go, at which point I yelled at the TV screen "TOO MUCH TIME!" I still had the memories of 2003 and 28-7 plaging me, but even after the Gophers gave the ball back with 4:53 to go the from the Michigan 5, the D put it to bed forcing a quick three-and-out. At that point is when I started to breathe again and start to believe that Kill and the Gophers had really done it.
I'M SORRY I DOUBTED YOU, MATT LIMEGROVER
I mean, sure I had reasons to doubt Limey before the Michigan game, and I did HOPE he had a great gameplan up his sleeve...but I just wasn't confident we'd ever see it. Boy was I wrong. A well-designed game plan from the start that were full of great calls at just the right time. Not to be a broken record, but what a change from TCU- the Gophers ran out of- gasp!- running formations as they lined up their big boys and just flat ran over the Wolverines. And as bad as Michigan's offense was, their defense was pretty legit, especially the run defense yet Minnesota put up over 200 yards at 4.4 yards per carry. In the first half it just seemed like every time Cobb took the ball he was through the line and into the second level. He ran over, around, and through Michigan defenders and showed the country why he has a great chance to play on Sundays. 32 carries for 183 yards and three catches for 50 yards was just a monster performance vs a good Wolverines D that just had no answer for him. The only thing missing was a touchdown for him, but hopefully plenty more of those to come. Overall it was as impressive a performance as we've seen from a Gopher back since...well since it's been a long time.
The offensive line looked great all day, not just opening holes for Cobb, but protecting Leidner. Oh and about that- Leidner had just six carries on the day, three of those sacks, for 17 yards and a TD. That might have been what impressed me most- Limey rarely, if ever, called a QB run, which in the past had been a staple of any Leidner-led offensive game plan. Usually when Moose is behind center he's running more than he's passing, yet Saturday he ran just three times, and if I'm not mistaken, he never kept the ball on a read-option. They didn't call that play often, but when they did, he not only gave it to Cobb, but Cobb gained yardage out of it. That is such a departure from past games I couldn't believe it was happening. Yes, Matt Limegrover was not only adapting to the defense, but also to his personnel and what they were capable of doing.
Then there's the passing stats- 14 for 22 for 167 and 1 TD with no picks. Yes, a Gopher QB completed more than 60% of his passes! And he looked pretty comfortable and confident doing it. I haven't been able to watch the game again, but just looking at the play-by-play sheet this is where Limegrover deserves more credit- he got Mitch throwing early, but making safe, short throws to build some confidence and rhythm. First drive, after Cobb's 34 yard run on the second play of the game that made you say "Oh wait a minute...we might have something today!" Leidner completes a 1 yard pass to Berkley. A short Cobb run then Limey calls for a short pass to Cobb that falls 2 yards short of a first down. Instead of letting Santoso try a 50 yard field goal from the 33, the Gophers go for it and Limey makes his first of many great calls of the day- a play-action pass that Leidner completes to fullback Miles Thomas for five yards and a first down. How unlikely was that? It was Thomas' first catch of the season.
His next two passes fell incomplete as the Gophers had to punt, and their next three drives all ended in punts too as Leidner would miss two more attempts and also take a sack. At that point, with Cobb still churning out yards, you had to wonder about the passing game, yet to his credit Limey stuck with it. His first pass of the fifth drive fell incomplete and on second-and-long they went right back to it with a 33 yard completion to Cobb. He would then complete his next three leading to a 10 yard QB keeper to tie the game at 7, and he and the passing game were off.
This whole game was nothing of what we'd seen from Limegrover or the offense the previous four weeks. WHY we didn't see anything like this is not a rabbit-hole worth diving down because we're positive today and we're staying that way (at least for today). But the point is, this is what we had hoped for from Limey and the offense, and we got it. He didn't do anything crazy, and he didn't even pull out many jet sweeps (Donovahn Jones had the first one I could remember late in the second half) or wide receiver screens, yet the offense still did the job. I loved that he worked to build Leidner's confidence early with some short, easy passes to his backs, and went from there If we get this kind of game planning and performance the rest of the season combined with this defense and special teams...alright, alright we've got two more weeks to speculate on that.
OH, HI MITCH!
Before we get to the defense- and we are getting there- I have my last apology. Last week I wasn't ready to name Chris Streveler (hey, remember him?) the unquestioned starter quite yet, but I had just figured with a sprained knee and turf toe there was no way Mitch could play and be effective. Why not give Streveler the start vs Michigan since him at 100% had to be better than Mitch at 50 or 60 or 70%, right? When they announced about an hour before kickoff that Leidner was starting that's when I figured the Gophers were really doomed. They couldn't decide whom to start and somehow figured they owed it to an injured Leidner to play. This would go horribly wrong as he limped around the field trying to run the read-option and flailing passes. Doomed, I said. Doomed.
Yet again on this day, I could not have been more wrong. He looked much, MUCH better throwing the ball in his timing, accuracy, and decision-making. The Moose we'd liked last year had suddenly returned. He did have the 10 yard TD run but otherwise did not use his legs much at all. Honestly, if I had told you prior to the game that Leidner would only run six times for 17 yards while taking (his usual) three sacks, would you have EVER believed the Gophers would win that game going away? You are lying to yourself if you said yes to that. Yet despite obviously not being 100% with his injuries, he was still very effective as an actual passing quarterback, and doing enough running when he had to. It was not only all I could have hoped for from him, it was actually so much more.
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, WE HAVE A DEFENSE
So this just in but the defense is really, really good. Sure, Michigan doesn't have the world's best offense and the Gophers are not going to hold everybody to 14 points and under 200 total yards and 4 yards per play. But my goodness was that impressive. They not only knocked the bejeezus out of poor Shane Morris all afternoon, but they stuffed what had been a pretty good Michigan running game too, to the tune of 83 rush yards at just 3 per carry. Devin Funchess wasn't 100% due to injury, but he couldn't get anything going in the passing game, and neither could anyone else as Michigan QBs were just 10-25 for 81 yards and 1 pick. That's only 40% completions, and Morris was lucky he didn't have two more picked off as both BBC and Jalen Myrick dropped sure interceptions. The front seven only registered one sack but had 6 TFLs, a forced and recovered fumble and knocked Morris around countless times.
Minnesota's defense dominated Michigan's offense from beginning to end, and you'd probably have to go back to the 1930's since the last time that happened. The young defensive line played well while tackling monster Damien Wilson along with Campbell and Jack Lynn were fantastic at LB. The secondary was everywhere, covering receivers and coming up to help in run support. Honestly it was about as thorough a whooping as Minnesota's offense received from TCU's D a few weeks ago.
I hope DC Tracy Claeys stays here forever, and that we use any or all of that new NYC/DC area BTN money the Gophers will get to keep him. The offense looked better and should give plenty of hope, but the fact we have a defense we can rely on? A defense that is actually, yes, GOOD? At Minnesota? As far as I'm concerned they should put Claeys name on one of the new athletic facilties buildings, because for building an honest to goodness good defense at Minnesota he deserves at least that much.
FINALLY, LET'S NOT LEAVE OUT SPECIAL TEAMS
Great performance from them too. Santoso's 48 yard field goal would have been good from the State Fair parking lot, and his two other chippies went through which hasn't always been a given for Gopher kickers (at least pre-Chris Hawthorne). His kickoffs also regularly reach orbit giving the guys on kick coverage a chance to get a good run in during the game as the ball sails out of the end zone. Punter Peter Mortell is nothing short of a punting legend, as he dropped three inside the 20 just in this game alone. Without return specialist Marcus Jones available, all freshman Craig James did was return four punts for 66 yards while Myrick took back the only kickoff he could return 28 yards. It was an all-around fantastic performance from the special teams, something we've been saying quite a bit about them lately.
Overall it was arguably the best performance the Gophers have had under Jerry Kill, at least on par with the Nebraska upset of last year. As amazing as it was to watch Minnesota kick Michigan all over their own field in front of their stunned and silent-as-usual crowd at the Big House, I'm still trying to wrap my head around the fact we saw an efficient and effective offense, great special teams, and a REALLY good defense- all in the same game. And all against Michigan. That was something I hoped was possible but never truly did until the final seconds ticked off the clock. Well I'm done hoping. Jerry Kill has made me a believer.