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Three plays that changed Minnesota’s season

A few crucial moments have led Gophers football to a 5-4 record through nine games.
Image by Amaya Battle
Wolverines quarterback J.J. McCarthy rushed past the Gophers defense for a touchdown on Oct. 7.

Minnesota football’s week nine loss to Illinois on a last-minute touchdown pass is nothing new to a team that experienced a similar loss to Northwestern.

The Gophers struggled to put games away offensively and defensively in situations where they held momentum. Miscommunication, bad angles and inaccurate passes in critical junctures have left Minnesota in must-win territory heading into West Lafayette this Saturday.

Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck, during the postgame press conference after the Illinois loss, said the Gophers played disciplinary football for the most part against Illinois, but self-inflicted wounds killed them.

“I thought we played really clean football for a long time, but then there are some catastrophic things that happen and, in a game like this, it gets magnified,” Fleck said. “Whatever happens in November, good or bad, gets magnified.”

Some of the plays Fleck was referring to were a missed pass on third down to close the game out and the safeties not getting enough depth on the final touchdown.

The first instance of this to note is Illinois quarterback John Paddock’s last-minute game-winning touchdown pass to receiver Isaiah Williams in a 27-26 victory over Minnesota.

On the play, Illinois had three receivers to the wide side of the field and the inside receiver, Williams, ran a straight seam route. Gophers linebacker Cody Lindenberg carried the route for 19 yards before dropping it off to the safeties. The two safeties did not pick Williams up.

Williams split defensive backs Tyler Nubin and Aidan Gousby before walking right into the end-zone in what was the decisive score.

During a press conference Wednesday afternoon, defensive coordinator Joe Rossi said the coverage was incorrect and the safeties on the back end did not get enough depth in their drops.

“We ended up playing a half-half, which we do play as well, so to me, it came down to depth by both safeties,” Rossi said.

“Half-half” refers to a cover-two defense, where two safeties drop deeper than usual to defend against longer throws. One of the main rules is to be deeper than the deepest guy and on this play, the Gophers failed to satisfy the rule, costing them the game.

Nubin attributed the defensive breakdown to miscommunication during the postgame press conference. A disconnect between Nubin, Lindenberg and Gousby led to the game-sealing touchdown.

Miscommunication happened in a similar situation against Northwestern, where Wildcats tight end Charlie Mangieri waltzed untouched into the end-zone to complete an improbable comeback. Northwestern went on a 27-3 run in the fourth quarter and overtime to beat the Gophers 37-34.

On the Mangieri touchdown, neither Gophers freshman linebacker Maverick Baranowski nor sophomore linebacker Devon Williams accounted for the tight end.

Mangieri got a free release and had about 10 yards of open grass in all directions as he hauled in the game-winning touchdown. The miscommunication between players in underneath coverage allowed the graduate tight end to score his first touchdown since 2020.

Rossi, during a post-game press conference Wednesday afternoon, said the mistake on the touchdown stemmed from the front seven.

“Northwestern [the problem] was underneath zone coverage, there was a lot of zones, it was linebackers not doing their job in those situations,” Rossi said. “I thought our pass rush lanes were poor.”

The Gophers’ failure to stay disciplined in the fourth quarter has cost them multiple times throughout the season. However, these mistakes have not been limited to critical moments late into the game.

In front of a sellout crowd against Michigan at home, Gophers quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis threw a pick-six on the second play of the game, taking the air out of the crowd.

During the post-game press conference on Oct. 7, Fleck said the Gophers cannot win football games when throwing multiple pick-sixes. Kaliakmanis took responsibility for the mistakes during the game during the press conference and said execution was lacking in the blowout loss.

Since that game, Kaliakmanis has looked more comfortable in the pocket and reached 200 passing yards for the first time this season against Michigan State.

Greg Harbaugh Jr., Minnesota’s offensive play-caller, told the media during a press conference Wednesday afternoon the offense is beginning to unlock new portions of the playbook for Kaliakmanis.

“It’s beginning to click, it’s continuing to click, and I think that’s the most encouraging thing,” Harbaugh said.

The three moments sum up what has been a rough season for Minnesota. However, they are a few mental mistakes away from controlling their destiny in the Big Ten West.

Minnesota showed improvement each week through player growth and development. However, as Fleck said, everything is magnified in November and a single snap could determine a season in college football.

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