MINNEAPOLIS — On the job as Minnesota's head coach for less than a week, Tracy Claeys faced a crucial decision in the closing moments against No. 15 Michigan.
Even though it backfired, Claeys says he'd make the exact same call if he had to do it over again.
Wilton Speight came off the bench and threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Jehu Chesson with under 5 minutes to play and Michigan stopped Mitch Leidner on a sneak as time expired to escape with a 29-26 victory over Minnesota on Saturday night.
In his first game as interim head coach since Jerry Kill's surprising retirement for health reasons, Claeys elected to go for the win over a potential tying field goal with the ball inside the 1 and 2 seconds left. But Leidner's plunge was stuffed by Ryan Glasgow and Joe Bolden, allowing Michigan (6-2, 3-1 Big Ten) to take back the Little Brown Jug after losing it in Ann Arbor last year.
"I'd call a timeout and do it again," Claeys said. "I just think in those situations you've got to be able to get half a yard. If it's outside the one yard line, hey, we'll kick it and move on. But in that situation I felt like we could get it. I'd do it all over again and do the same thing. That's what it's about."
Leidner was 16 for 33 for a career-high 317 yards and a touchdown for the Golden Gophers (4-4, 1-3). He was clutch on the final possession, converting a fourth-and-5 with a 12-yard strike to K.J. Maye and hitting Drew Wolitarsky on a 22-yard fade to put the ball inside the 1 with 19 seconds to play.
Wolitarsky's catch initially was ruled a touchdown, but replays showed his knee was down inside the 1. The clock started again as soon as the ball was placed and, after Leidner's pass to the flat was incomplete, only 2 seconds remained.
Claeys said he was aware the clock was running. Leidner wasn't so sure.
"I don't think we were expecting it to be going. I mean, I wasn't at least," Leidner said.
Gophers kicker Ryan Santoso had already made four field goals, but Claeys decided to roll the dice.
The offensive line got no push against Michigan's stout front and Glasgow and Bolden made sure Leidner made it nowhere near the goal line. After the review confirmed the play, the Wolverines stormed the Minnesota sideline to take back the oldest rivalry trophy in college football.
"(Defensive coordinator) DJ Durkin called the QB sneak there at the end," Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. "We sold out on the sneak."
Speight missed on his first three passes of the game after coming on in relief of Jake Rudock, who was knocked out with a chest injury late in the third quarter.
Speight responded with the strike to Chesson, then kept his composure under duress, stepped up in the pocket and hit Amara Darboh for the 2-point conversion with 4:57 to play.
It was a crushing loss for the Gophers, who came into TCF Bank Stadium overflowing with emotions following Kill's abrupt retirement. The coaching lifer gave a tear-filled press conference Wednesday to announce that his epilepsy would no longer allow him to keep up the grueling work load of a major college coach.
"It's just been an emotional rollercoaster all the way to the end of the game," Gophers defensive lineman Steven Richardson said. "This week has had its ups and downs all the way through."
Just before kickoff, Leidner grabbed a maroon and gold flag with the word "Jerrysota" on it and took it to the student section, emphatically waving it to charge up the crowd. As Minnesota lined up for the final play, fans were chanting "Jerry! Jerry!"
Then Leidner was stopped short.
"Overall the whole game was just emotional when you think about it," Leidner said. "You think about coach the entire time and when you think you're winning, when you think you take the lead. For all the work, every single person on that field, on that sideline put in to play for him, it's an overwhelming feeling."