BLOOMINGTON, Ind. Jerry Kill stood with relief high above the field in the coaching box. Yards from the decisive play, Kevin Wilson briefly dropped to one knee in despair as officials signaled a stunning change of possession.
The ball got away from Tevin Coleman on second-and-goal - and with it, perhaps, a victory. Linebacker Aaron Hill recovered the bobbled lateral with 25 seconds remaining and surging Minnesota survived a furious Indiana comeback to beat the Hoosiers 42-39 on Saturday.
"When things were going against us we found a way to make a play rather than saying, 'Here we go again,'" said Kill, on leave since Oct. 10 as he treats his epilepsy. "Kids are believing in each other."
Minnesota (7-2, 3-2 Big Ten) led 35-13 midway through the third quarter before the Hoosiers stormed to a 39-35 lead on Nate Sudfeld's 30-yard touchdown pass to Cody Latimer with 5:33 remaining. But Philip Nelson found Maxx Williams open down the middle for a 50-yard scoring pass on Minnesota's ensuing possession.
Indiana (3-5, 1-3) then drove 60 yards in seven plays, including two 20-yard completions by Sudfeld, to the Gophers' 9-yard line. Following an incompletion and a Minnesota timeout, Sudfeld lined up in a shotgun formation with Coleman to his left. He released a quick swing toss from around the 16-yard line as Coleman ran toward the right flat. The football bounced off the hands of a twisting Coleman around the 18-yard line as he was hit by Minnesota's Brock Vereen.
"It was behind me, I just tried to make a play out of it," Coleman said. "It's tough to deal with. I am not happy at all."
Coleman stumbled to his feet and saw the loose ball resting about a yard in front of him. Thinking the play was an incomplete pass, he didn't dive for it. Instead, a charging Hill scooped the fumble to secure Minnesota's third straight victory under acting coach Tracy Claeys.
"That was what the timeout was for," Claeys said. "Aaron Hill had a great reaction. We brought two guys off the edge to force the quarterback to throw to the back. We wanted to make sure everybody knew what was going on. It just happened (Sudfeld) threw it backwards."
Nelson went 16 of 23 for 298 yards and four touchdowns. Minnesota's David Cobb rushed 29 times for 188 yards and a score and also caught two passes for 48 yards. Wide receiver Derrick Engel had 97 yards and two scores on four receptions, while Williams added 78 yards on four catches.
Indiana now is forced to win three of its final four games, including one of its two remaining road contests at Ohio State and Wisconsin, to secure bowl eligibility for the first time since 2007.
"That was a tough loss," Wilson said. "I made a poor call and we did not execute the play at the end. Because of it, we lost. On a swing play there is always the chance for a lateral. I'm really disappointed. Our guys didn't play well early, but they battled and hung in there."
The Hoosiers lost their third straight despite gaining 227 yards on the ground. Coleman ran 14 times for 108 yards and a touchdown for Indiana before his fateful mistake. Stephen Houston posted 111 yards on 13 carries.
The Hoosiers were in a 22-point hole after Cobb exploded for a 27-yard TD with 6:24 left in the third quarter. But touchdowns on four straight possessions, combined with three consecutive defensive stops, allowed Indiana to improbably take a late lead in a contest critical to its postseason hopes.
Indiana safety Greg Heban made a lunging tackle at the feet of Jalen Myrick, who came two yards shy of converting a fake punt on fourth-and-5 from his own 36 with 8:45 to play. That set up the heroics of Sudfeld and Latimer, whose touchdown put the Hoosiers in front for the first time since they led 13-7.
A string of 28 unanswered Minnesota points ended when Sudfeld connected with Shane Wynn on a 40-yard touchdown with 5:13 remaining in the third quarter. One series later, a read-option pitch from Tre Roberson to Coleman led to his 55-yard TD down the right sideline on the first snap of the fourth quarter. That drew Indiana within 35-27.
Mitch Leidner threw incomplete on fourth-and-2 from the Indiana 39 to give the Hoosiers the ball back. One play after Stephen Houston used superb blocking to pick up 21 yards on third-and-10, he powered in from the 4-yard line to give Indiana a chance to tie. Minnesota's defense, however, stopped Sudfeld's scramble on the 2-point conversion attempt to maintain a 35-33 lead.
Cobb became the first Gopher to rush for 100 yards in three straight games since Amir Pinnix in 2006. Behind 123 total first-half yards from Cobb, Minnesota outgained the Hoosiers 301-162 in the first half and led 28-13 at the break.
The game was delayed for eight minutes early in the second quarter after Minnesota center Jon Christenson sustained a left leg injury. About 30 teammates left the sideline to wish Christenson well before he was carted off on a stretcher. The sophomore blocker was taken to a local hospital but was expected to make the team's flight back to Indianapolis.