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.