Yes, there are reasons to feel good about the future of Gophers football
P.J. Fleck’s program hasn’t yet won the Big Ten West, but it’s building a track record unseen since the 1960s
MINNEAPOLIS — The Gophers football team didn’t overwhelm its competition this season, and that’s why they didn’t reach the Big Ten Championship Game on Saturday. Minnesota also didn’t underwhelm, taking care of business against lesser teams, most often in blowout fashion.
So, in 2022, the Gophers just plain whelmed to the tune of 8-4 and 5-4 in Big Ten play. They will learn their bowl destination on Sunday.
While the success of the Gophers’ regular season falls into the gray area, there are plenty of reasons for optimism. Let’s count the ways:
Standard being set
Head coach P.J. Fleck has had three seasons with a winning percentage of .667 or greater in his six years at Minnesota. That’s more than the nine other Gophers coaches combined in the previous 50 years.
While they haven’t gotten over the hump, they have been on the cusp of winning the Big Ten West in 2019, ’21 and '22. And they have won consecutive games over Wisconsin for the first time in nearly 30 years.
In a passionate pregame speech at Camp Randall Stadium last weekend, Fleck relayed the opportunity Minnesota had with Paul Bunyan’s Axe on the line: “Understand you can put your fingerprint all over history,” he told them. “Change those haven’t beens, those nevers — you can break some more of those (records).”
The future looks bright with quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis. The “Greek Gunslinger” showed moxie while being thrust into some high-leverage situations after sixth-year senior Tanner Morgan was injured twice midseason.
The redshirt freshman QB made his first collegiate start in front of 109,813 in Penn State’s White Out game. He battled in the wind and bitter cold in a hard-fought rivalry game loss to Iowa, and he broke through in a big way against rival Wisconsin — setting career highs of 19 completions, 29 attempts, 319 passing yards and two touchdowns in the 23-16 win in Madison.
On his game-winning 45-yard touchdown pass to Le’Meke Brockington, Kaliakmanis didn’t let Badgers’ cornerback Alexander Smith’s inside leverage deny the slant pass. “That can’t just take away that play, but surface level it should,” Fleck said. “It didn’t. It just went from 100- to 200- to 500-level thinking like that and made the throw. He made some huge throws.”
The Gophers know they need more run-pass balance going forward, and Kaliakmanis’ big right arm and athleticism providing a run threat should make Minnesota more versatile in 2023. He had multiple big carries during the season, including a 23-yarder vs. Wisconsin.
Winning up front
The Gophers were able to successfully replace four of five starting offensive linemen and six of their top eight defensive linemen this season.
Minnesota's defense stayed one of the stingiest units in the country, while all five O-linemen, plus tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford, were named all-Big Ten on Wednesday. That’s the second straight season all five of Minnesota’s starting O-lineman have made all-conference.
Minnesota will have to replace Rimington Award candidate in center John Michael Schmitz and both guards, but have shown an ability to find talent in the NCAA transfer portal and develop talent from within. Left tackle Aireontae Ersery and tackle/guard Quinn Carroll will be back. On the D-line, all key contributors except for senior end Thomas Rush are in line to return in 2023.
Minnesota’s defense has been ranked in the Top 10 in scoring and total defense in consecutive years. They are stifling opponents at a rate unseen within the program since the 1960s. In 2022, Minnesota finished fifth in the nation in scoring defense (13.3 points a game) and sixth in total defense (279 yards a game).
“If you study leadership, the last phase of leadership is leaving a legacy,” defensive coordinator Joe Rossi said before the Wisconsin game. “… The true measure of leadership is to have a legacy that it can go on after you leave, and for Mariano (Sori-Marin), he has set the standard.”
Sori-Marin, Minnesota’s top tackler in two of the past three years, is finishing his final season, but fellow linebacker Cody Lindenberg has blossomed as the heir apparent. The third-year player was part of the Gophers' all-Big Ten contingent; he had 60 total tackles on the season.
Part of the reason the Gophers’ 2019 season was such a fun ride to 11 wins was how luck factored in. They converted a third-and-30 against Georgia Southern and Chris Autman-Bell somehow got a foot inbounds for a touchdown during a thrilling, two-overtime victory at Fresno State.
The Gophers were unlucky at times in 2022: Autman-Bell’s season-ending injury; Michael Brown-Stephens’ dropped touchdown vs. Purdue; and Mo Ibrahim’s incredibly rare fumble vs. Iowa.
The joy and agony of sports is how games hinge on those moments. If Minnesota can put itself in the West race in 2023, a fortunate bounce or two might be the difference.
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