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Minnesota Football: Gophers Unable to Defend Jug, Lose Heartbreaker to Michigan 29-26

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Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

An emotional and highly entertaining battle for The Little Brown Jug ended with one of the most stunning finishes in Gopher football history...and that is saying a LOT.  A back and forth game between the Michigan Wolverines and our Minnesota Golden Gophers ended with another game added to the list of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.  Michigan will be taking home The Jug after surviving with a 29-26 win.

The Gophers were blindsided and shocked by the news on Wednesday morning that Jerry Kill was immediately retiring. A week of distractions, a lot of raw emotions and questions about how the team would react as they faced #17 Michigan with an opportunity to keep (yes, you read that right...keep) The Little Brown Jug in consecutive seasons for the first time since the 1962 and 63 seasons.

Let's just skip to the end shall we?

Michigan trails for much of the second half but scores a touchdown and two-point conversion to retake the lead 29-26.  Gophers get the ball back with 4:57 remaining, on their own 25 and The Little Brown Jug on the line.

The offense begins the drive with a 15-yard penalty for a chop block putting them deep in a hole at the worst possible time.  First down is a 5-yard rush, second down is incomplete and now they are 17 yards from a first down or a difficult to decision whether to punt or go for it.  But Rodney Smith gets loose on a screen as Michigan blitzed and he scampered for 17 yards keeping the Gopher drive alive.

Now the offense had some momentum.  Smith for 7, completion to Maye for 14 yards, Leidner rushes for 5 before the a no-gain and an incomplete pass put the offense on 4th down with 5 yards need to stay alive.  Now with a minute and a half left and just outside of FG range on the 39, going for it was the only real choice.  But Leidner hits Maye with a bullet for a 12-yard gain.  First down at the 27.  Two plays later Leider throws a perfect over-the-shoulder pass to Drew Wolitarsky for what appeard to be a 27-yard game-winning touchdown pass.  TCF Bank Stadium was electrified by the incredible comeback and tremendous win for the Gophers in the wake of this week's emotions.

BUT the replay officials correctly called that Wolitarsky was down inside the 1 so it was 1st and goal from just a few inches outside of the end zone with 19 seconds remaining.  Following the replay the Gophers lined up in the Golden-I formation, the clock running, and shifted out of that formation into a shot-gun-spread, the clock still running! Misdirection and an incomplete pass now, inexplicably, only 2 seconds remained.

Minnesota uses a timeout and decides to go for the game-winning touchdown rather than kick the game-tying field goal and live to play in overtime against a Michigan team without their starting quarterback-who had been knocked out in the third quarter.

2 seconds left from inches away.  A QB sneak was called and Michigan stuffed it.  The Wolverines retained the Jug.  Interim Head Coach, Tracy Claeys on his decision to go for it and the first down play.

"We had the play called and thought we could get it off.  All the motions in that took a little bit longer than what we thought they would.  So we thought maybe we could get another play, but hey, if we get it in there and it's not there we'll throw it away and come back from the half-yard line and sneak it in."

The problem I have here is that with 19 seconds and a timeout you should have been able to run at least 2 plays and still be able to kick the FG.  If you threw it each time you could probably run three plays before kicking it.  But resting on the fact you try one play to catch them off guard and then assume you'll sneak it in on 2nd down was short-sighted.

Even if you really like that pass play you can run up the middle, call a timeout, run the motions play and then still have time to run another play or kick the FG.  19 seconds left and you should have run three plays, your third being the option to go for it or tie it.

"We have to be able to get a half yard there and we have to be able to match up on a few more routes on third down and get us off the field and take away a score or two."

There certainly were some plays you'd like to have back and you should be able to punch it in from there.  In fact even with this offensive line, you probably score there 80% of the time. But overtime, at home, with their quarterback out...I don't think anybody questions that.

But the game was a loss and one that Gopher fans will be talking about not just this week but should go on the list of epic meltdowns along with 2003 Michigan, 2005 Wisconsin, you get the point..I'm not typing any more of them out.

Overall this was a great game.  Highly emotional, incredibly entertaining and this Gopher squad showed tremendous moxy in the face of what was clearly a difficult week.  Michigan jumped out to a pretty quick 14-3 lead and things looked like they were about to spiral out of control.  But Minnesota regrouped, scored the next 13 points, lead at half and for much of the second half.  As mentioned, Michigan retook the lead with just under 5 minutes to play and this much maligned offense put together an impressive drive that went 74 yards, 2 feet and 11 inches.

Leidner finished with a career best 317 yards passing, one touchdown and a rushing touchdown.  Brandon Lingen had a breakout game with 111 yards receiving.  Rashad Still scored his first career touchdown with a 52-yard strike.  The defense struggled early before adjusting and really put the heat on whoever was under center for Michigan.  Six team tackles for loss and De'Vondre Campbell had 13 tackles to lead the team.

But just enough mistakes made, a botched coaching decision, a few too many short fields for the Michigan offense and the Gophers blew a golden opportunity to win the Jug for back to back years for the first time since 1962-63.  Very frustrating and a night of celebratory bourbon turned on a dime into "just get me the hard stuff."

Up next is a trip to Columbus to face Ohio State.