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Where do the Gophers go from here?

The Gophers look to get back on top of the Big Ten West this Saturday after dropping back-to-back road games against North Carolina and Northwestern.
Image by Jack Rodgers
Head coach P.J. Fleck celebrates on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018 at Huntington Bank Stadium. The Gophers’ loss against Northwestern weekend leaves no clear roadmap for where the team goes next.

A heartbreaking loss to Northwestern Saturday night left Minnesota fans speechless, with Gophers football falling to 2-2 on the season without having faced the toughest part of the schedule.

The game in Evanston, Illinois went into overtime after the Gophers allowed a touchdown with just two seconds left. A crucial play in overtime came on fourth-and-goal at the two-yard line and head coach P.J. Fleck had a decision to make: kick a field goal or go for the touchdown.

During a press conference Monday morning, Fleck said the decision to kick the field goal was a mixture of poor offensive execution and trusting the defense.

“If we come away with nothing, all they have to do is set up and kick a field goal, and I never gave our team a chance to respond,” Fleck said. “Now, maybe if it was on the one-yard line, maybe a little different.”

Fleck’s point is valid in how a field goal would give his team a better chance to win. For context, Minnesota’s defense had been struggling, allowing 21 straight points in the fourth quarter alone. Northwestern would be starting their first offensive opportunity in overtime at the 25-yard line.

Minnesota’s defense surrendered a touchdown to Northwestern on their first play via a wide-open tight end Charlie Mangieri. The pass pushed the Wildcats to 400 total passing yards on the evening.

One piece looking to shore up the Gophers’ secondary is Craig McDonald. McDonald practiced with the team throughout the first four weeks of the season and now looks to earn a role within the backfield’s rotation.

The NCAA approved his waiver to play in the 2023 season earlier this week, making him eligible to play this Saturday against the University of Louisiana Lafayette, according to the Pioneer Press.

Joe Rossi, Minnesota’s defensive coordinator, said while McDonald has been practicing, his lack of in-game reps may limit his usage this weekend.

Defensive back Tyler Nubin spoke to the media at a press conference on Wednesday about McDonald’s eligibility and the impact it has on the defense.

“Huge, man. He’s a ball player, he’s a playmaker, just like every other guy we have on our defense, he loves to play,” Nubin said. “He loves to learn, he’s really smart, he plays hard, so he’s another tool that we can use on the field.”

On the other side of the ball, play caller Greg Harbaugh Jr. told the media on Wednesday that quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis is getting more comfortable as the season progresses.

“You see what he can handle and then as he executes and, as he gets better, you put more on his plate,” Harbaugh said. “Every good offense is centered around the playmakers, but you have to center it around what the quarterback can handle. He’s done an excellent job … learning from the last week and adding it to his repertoire the next week.”

Minnesota’s loss to Northwestern hurt their postseason chances and with Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin still on the schedule, it seems unlikely they will rebound. Already having a conference loss before playing the big four sets them at a major disadvantage.

In the best-case scenario, the Gophers come out .500 in those four games and, on top of winning the other conference games scheduled, contend for first place in the Big Ten West.

Fleck called the schedule opportunistic before the season’s first game. Although that may still ring true, Minnesota needs to quickly respond to its devastating loss to Northwestern.

Their next game will be Saturday at 11 a.m. against Louisiana, a must-win to keep their Big Ten Championship and bowl game hopes alive.

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