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Minnesota survives season opener against Nebraska

The Gophers trailed heading into the final minutes of the game before fighting back late to win on a last-second field goal.
Image by Theo Franz
A post-game press conference following the Gophers’ win against the Cornhuskers on August 31, 2023. Minnesota beat the Nebraska team 13-10.

Minnesota beat Nebraska in climactic fashion on Thursday night, winning 13-10. The victory marks their fifth straight win over the Cornhuskers and their sixth total during P.J. Fleck’s tenure as the Gophers’ head coach.

The Gophers announced hours before kickoff that linebacker Cody Lindenberg, a rising star on the defense, and defensive lineman Darnell Jefferies, a big-bodied veteran, would be out due to injury.

To begin the 140th season of Gophers football, Minnesota returned the opening kick and, on their first play, called for a pass to tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford that went for seven yards. Running back Sean Tyler earned the spot as a starter and followed up the catch with a one-yard carry.

The drive stalled two first downs later and put Mark Crawford in position to punt from the Gophers 47-yard line. The punt rolled for 52 yards until Gopher defenders stopped it a yard away from Nebraska’s endzone.

Nebraska quarterback Jeff Sims captained the Cornhuskers offense through a heavy rushing attack. His six-foot-four, 220-pound frame paired with his speed made him a viable threat to the Gophers’ defense early on.

Sims opened the Cornhuskers’ first offensive drive with a designed quarterback run, dodged a tackle attempt and took it outside for 26 yards. Nebraska was later forced to punt after Minnesota cornerback Justin Walley made a big-play-preventing tackle in space.

Kaliakmanis initiated the following drive with an extended play-action fake and fired a pass to Corey Crooms Jr. on a dig route over the middle for a 20-yard completion. Kaliakmanis connected with him again for another first down on an under route for 10 yards.

The transfer from Western Michigan finished his first quarter as a Gopher with five catches for 37 yards.

After failing to pick up a first down in opposing territory, kicker Dragan Kesich nailed a 34-yard field goal to put Minnesota up 3-0, capping off a solid 13-play, 7-minute, 41-second drive.

Fifth-year transfer Tre’von Jones produced numerous highlights throughout the first half, starting with an essential pass breakup on Nebraska’s first drive in the second quarter. Jones then stopped a quarterback run by Sims on the next play with a key tackle.

Minnesota safety Tyler Nubin followed Jones’ tackle with a pick off of Sims to end Nebraska’s drive upfield — the ninth interception of his Minnesota career.

The Gophers’ offense began to feel immediate pressure from Nebraska’s defensive line, stalling their push toward the end zone. The Gophers failed to turn Nubin’s turnover into any points after Kesich missed his kick wide left, keeping the score at 3-0 Minnesota with less than four minutes in the half.

Nebraska capitalized on the opportune field position and made their way to the goal line. Sims hurried to the line after the run was stopped inches from the goal line and threw himself in on a quarterback sneak. However, a false start voided the Cornhusker touchdown and moved the offense five yards back.

On second and goal from the six-yard line with just seconds left in the first half, Sims was forced to pass and threw it straight to Jones for a second interception. Jones finished his first-ever half of football as a Gopher with five tackles, an interception and a pass breakup.

Tyler Nubin reflected on Jones’ interception in the post-game press conference.

“He read the eyes, sank back, and really helped me out too because I was kind of out-leveraged a little bit,” Nubin said. “You know, I thank him for that one. He’s a ball player and he made a great play.”

Rahmir Johnson broke a 63-yard kickoff return at the opening of the second and the energy felt in the sold-out crowd in Huntington Bank short-circuited.

Still scoreless, Nebraska took a gamble on a trick play by pitching the ball to the right side to Anthony Grant, who then stopped to throw it back to Sims, who then launched it 35 yards to a wide-open Alex Bullock for a touchdown.

The defensive line responded well after the touchdown. Minnesota saw three total sacks on Sims from Jalen Logan-Redding, Danny Striggow and Jah Joyner, limiting the momentum Nebraska could gain from pulling off the broken touchdown play.

Kaliakmanis seemed to find a rhythm, fitting a dart to Spann-Ford for a first down. On the play, Nebraska’s key defensive lineman, Ty Robinson, was ejected due to a targeting penalty on a helmet-to-helmet hit on Kaliakmanis.

The Gophers failed to produce anything with the extra 15 yards. Kaliakmanis shorted a deep pass and was picked off by cornerback Omar Brown, a Minneapolis native.

Successful plays made by running back Gabe Ervin Jr. and wide receiver Marcus Washington marched Nebraska downfield and into field goal range. The Cornhuskers’ kick was successful as they found themselves up by one score early into the fourth quarter.

Both team’s offenses stalled and punted in three straight possessions. However, with Nebraska on offense during the fourth drive, Walley injected life back into the game, forcing a fumble on Ervin Jr. that was recovered by defensive back Aidan Gousby.

Kaliakmanis connected with Spann-Ford once more down the middle, this time for a 15-yard gain and a first down, putting them in the red zone.

Kaliakmanis put a little too much juice into his throw to wide receiver Daniel Jackson, throwing Jackson out of bounds despite him making the catch. 

Kaliakmanis went back to Jackson two plays later, targeting him in the corner of the endzone. Jackson once again made the catch comfortably but, this time, narrowly stayed in bounds by dragging the toes of his back foot across the endzone for a picturesque touchdown to tie the game at 10.

Sims and the Cornhuskers did not let the highlight touchdown slow them down, but the urgency to get downfield allowed Nubin to jump on another opportunity for an interception, his second on the day.

With less than a minute to go, Minnesota worked the left sideline, driving the ball to the 32-yard line. On third-and-13, Tyler broke off the longest run of the night for 11 yards to the Nebraska 29.

Minnesota took a timeout with three seconds remaining, setting up Kesich for the eventual 47-yard game-winning field goal.

Kaliakmanis finished his first start of the season 24-44 for 196 yards, one touchdown and one interception. 16 of the 44 passes were in the direction of Jackson.

Kaliakmanis explained during the press conference how their connection has grown from last year, through camp and into week one.

“I think it started last year, we just have such a good relationship off the field,” Kalikmanis said. “I know that if it’s one-on-one and he’s not open I’m going to give him the ball because he proves to everybody that he can make plays in big-time moments.”

During the post-game press conference, Fleck reflected on all the big plays made by the Gophers.

“It’s so fun to coach a group of guys who never think they are out of it,” Fleck said. “I kept saying in the huddle our best players have to make the plays.”

The Gophers survived an opening night scare and start the season 1-0. They will now look to get ready to host Eastern Michigan on Sept. 9 for their next game.

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