The scene was set, the stakeholders were in place, and the script was written. Then, in a twist of fate — or rather, a mind-boggling change in the director’s cut, chaos gave way to sensibility, and all that’s fair gave way to tragedy as far as the Minnesota Golden Gophers are concerned.
It was the perfect ending. The classy and respected Jerry Kill rides off into the sunset and his team plays the game of their lives in honor of him and knocks off the rival team that has more talent, and more mystique.
But somewhere on the way to the editing room, an alternate ending was spliced in at the last possible moment before the final act was sent to production. It would not be kind for the Minnesota faithful pulling for the coronation of Jerry Kill.
Before bringing up the very ugly, let’s first give Minnesota credit for playing lights out on the national stage. Clearly they showed the heart and emotion that Kill is proud of. The Wolverines are the far better team on paper, and the Gophers put the scare of all scares in them on Halloween night.
The Minnesota offense was pushing around the top ranked Michigan defense, its defenders were making key stops, and there was a drive for the ages where Minnesota wide-receiver K.J. Maye seemed to have octopus arms and sticky insect fingers.
And then it happened.
It looked for all the world that the Gophers had pulled off the improbable upset when Mitch Leidner threw a soft-arcing throw to Drew Wolitarsky for a touchdown. All was right with the world, and the football gods were smiling in honor of Jerry Kill. Then … a review ensued and the score was taken off the board and placed inside the one yard line.
No problem? Wrong.
If Tracy Claeys is in the midst of an interview for the head coaching job, his resume is the on-the-field work over the last few games of the season. On the job, it would be an understatement to point out that the end of this first round of questioning didn’t go so well.
Inexcusably, instead of calling a timeout, running a quick play, or clocking the ball on first down, Leidner called an audible with the ball within a hair of an upset that could be put in the capsule of Minnesota lore. The audible resulted in a change in formation, including putting players in motion and going from under center into a shotgun formation.
Seventeen seconds later …
A poorly designed pass fell incomplete. Now, say what you will about going for the win instead of kicking an almost sure field goal to send it into overtime, but you can at least give Claeys credit for manning up and trusting his team to win it behind all the emotion and energy it had shown during the drive.
Had the Gophers pushed it in, it would have been lauded and the football would have been signed by every team member and hand-delivered to Kill in person. Instead, it’s heartbreak city and every armchair quarterback will question why the field goal kicker wasn’t trotted out to tie the game, and salvage the train wreck that was already occurring with the time management.
It’s the type of loss that can send a program into the dark ages. It had the potential of being the type of win that can catapult a program to new heights. Hopefully, it is just a footnote to Gopher history, but time will tell.
At the end of the day, Michigan escaped when it probably shouldn’t have and there’s something to be said about that. Somehow, someway, the really, really good coaches seem to get the breaks, bounces, and luck. Call it what you will, but their teams seem to find a way to come out the other end of chaos with a renewed confidence. Mark Dantonio did it to Harbaugh a couple of weeks back, and this time it was Mr. Khakis that tightened his belt and had his moment in the lights.
Despite the outcome, Jerry Kill is still a great human being and superb coach. He stands for what’s noble and right and true. His former team still played its heart out and made him proud.
With the outcome Michigan still remains in the thick of everything in the Big Ten East with just a few games to go. Harbaugh still looms large over the program and expectations of what’s to come.
The outcome could have, and likely should have been quite different.
Phil Harrison is a frequent contributor to talking10.com. He is also a the founder of Big10news.com and featured contributor to collegefootballews.com and occasionally campusinsiders.com. You can follow him on twitter @PhilHarrisonCFB or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org If that doesn’t work, you can find him in the doghouse at home.
Minnesota Golden Gophers: Around the Campus 2015
Welcome back for another installment in Talking 10’s “Minnesota Week” series. Although most of our articles for “Minnesota Week” focus on football, this is our weekly chance to check in on all the other athletic success stories going on in the Twin Cities.
Let’s take a look at some of the highlights of 2014-15 and how that will project forward for Gophers fans in 2015-16. It may not be as exciting as a dilly bar on the sidelines on a snowy autumn day, but then again, what is?
Previous “Around the Campus” articles can be found here:
(The Frozen Four is a regular thing for this program, photo courtesy GopherSports.com)
Minnesota knows a little something about hockey, being so close to Canada and all. Particularly in women’s hockey, the Gophers are putting together a bit of a dynastic run. Coming into 2014-15, this program had made 3 straight NCAA Frozen Four appearances and had won 3 straight WCHA conference championships. This year would prove to be more of the same.
Minnesota ended up with a 22-2-4 record in WCHA play, to finish with yet another regular-season championship. Despite being upset in the conference playoffs, Minnesota rolled into the NCAA tournament and took care of business, culminating in yet another Frozen Four appearance.
Conference rival Wisconsin and then Harvard were the opponents, but the women in red and crimson were no match for this squad. Minnesota rolled to 3-1 and 4-1 victories to bring home another national championship, the only team one that the university will celebrate this school year. This is the program’s 6th national championship since 2000, and third in four years.
The team also set a program record by having 4 All-Americans in one season! Rachel Ramsey is the only senior in the bunch as well, meaning this loaded program brings back 3 All-Americans next for 2015-16 (Junior Hannah Brandt, and sophomores Lee Stecklein and Dani Cameranesi. That’s a loaded roster for another chance at a repeat title.
Expect the good times to keep rolling for the Gophers next winter, unless you are a Badgers fan (then stay hopeful you can overtake this rival and juggernaut in Minneapolis).
(photo courtesy Gophersports.com)
Compared to that dynasty on the women’s side, the Gopher men’s hockey team is just an ordinary lot. But that really should not diminish the face that the Gophers also took home a 4th straight conference championship on the men’s side of the ledger as well in 2014-15.
The Gophers did not start clean in conference play, but they finished strong at 12-5-3 to win the second-straight Big Ten championship (Minnesota was a member of the WCHA before the Big Ten found a 6th hockey team in Penn State a couple years ago). Then the Gophers rolled into Detroit and knocked off Ohio State 3-0 and Michigan 4-2 to win a tournament championship as well.
The NCAA tournament was not as kind to the Gophers though, as they drew Minnesota-Duluth, a team that had beaten them handily twice in the middle of the season. This time was no different, as the Gophers lost the tournament opener 4-1 to end the season. While that pales in comparison to the women, it’s still a really good season and this is still the program to beat in the Big Ten.
Again, because nothing says cold sports haven like practically Canada, AKA Minnesota. You can’t write it any better.
Looking ahead to next season, the Gophers lose a handful of players to NHL contracts, including the centerpiece defender on the team and two-time All-American Mike Reilly. However, there’s still plenty of up-and-coming talent in this program and we should not expect much of a drop off in 2015-16. The Gophers may be vulnerable in the Big Ten title chase, but that just makes it more interesting to watch.
Women’s Swimming and Diving
(Kierra Smith, NCAA Champion – photo courtesy GopherSports.com)
Much like last week’s profile on Rutgers, it does not take long before we begin to focus on more individual achievements for this athletic department. Unlike Rutgers, Minnesota didn’t finish near dead last in most sports and there are a couple of legitimate national championships in there.
On the individual championship side, junior Kierra Smith of the Minnesota swimming team brought home the hardware in the 200 breaststroke. Smith saved her best for last, breaking the school record for a 4th time in the NCAA championship meet with a time of 2:04:56. That helped the swim and dive team place 12th as a team, a considerable feat with one of their best swimmers Kiera Janzen was scratched for medical issues.
On the diving side, sophomore Yu Zhou won both NCAA diver of the year and the national championship in 3 meter diving. Zhou also had top 5 finishes in platform diving and 1 meter diving, cementing her place as the best diver in the NCAA. Both these athletes will come back, although Smith has chosen to take an Olympic redshirt for 2015-16 to try and make the 2016 Canadian Olympic squad. No announcement has yet been made for Zhou, who is Chinese.
Regardless, even if these stars are not in the pool for 2015-16, the future will definitely be bright for 2016-17 when both should still be competing in Minneapolis. That means Olympic and NCAA glory could come to the program, an exciting feat!
(photo courtesy GopherSports.com)
Another team which brought home a conference title was the Gophers men’s tennis team. Fueled by a 12-0 home record and an upset victory of nationally ranked No. 3 Illinois in the final weekend, Minnesota recovered from an early loss at Ohio State to finish 10-1 in conference play, tied for the title with the Buckeyes and Illini.
The Gophers then went into a 4-team regional at Virginia as a second seed, and after knocking off Princeton the team fell to top seed Virginia to end the season. This was the 4th time in the last 7 seasons that Minnesota has advanced at least to the regional final in the NCAA tournament. Leandro Toledo, the team’s ace, also made his second-straight NCAA singles championship appearance. But he fell int he round of 64 to a player from Harvard.
Toledo was also named as an All-American and finished ranked 33rd as a singles player in the NCAA. His four straight all-conference honors were well-earned, and his anchoring of the team will be sorely missed next season.
Indeed, four of the nine players on the tennis roster will be lost to graduation, but they made a memorable season and run to the top of the conference that will not soon be forgotten. Hopefully the young players taking over the team can maintain close to the same levels of success in future seasons, even though that can be tough in the rugged Big Ten.
Although not mentioned in detail above, a special shout out to the Gophers Softball team, which finished 20-3 in conference play and only one game behind Michigan, which of course went on to the NCAA CWS final. The Gophers did not fare so well in the NCAA’s, falling in a regional final at Arizona, but this is clearly the second-best team in a solid Big Ten this year (and that merits mention).
Be sure to support and enjoy these other achievements that the student athletes are bringing home to Minnesota now and in the near future.