The Gophers have lost two consecutive games, falling to 5-5, with their Big Ten West Division title hopes evaporating. They've surrendered 76 points and 975 yards over the past two weeks with their once-proud defense looking like a shell of itself.
Through that disappointment, though, there have been signs of improvement. One is at quarterback, where Athan Kaliakmanis has taken steps forward recently — baby steps, maybe, but steps, nonetheless.
Over the past two games, the redshirt sophomore has shown stretches of play during which he has looked the part of a successful Big Ten quarterback. During the first halves against Illinois and Purdue, Kaliakmanis completed 20 of 33 passes for 334 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions.
If that's a stat line for a full game, most teams would gladly take it. But it's not. Kaliakmanis' inconsistencies have shown up in the second half the past two weeks. Against Illinois, he was 2-for-11 for 37 yards and one touchdown after intermission. Against Purdue, he went 7-for-20 for 88 yards and a TD after halftime.
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck knows that staying patient with a developing quarterback might not excite the fan base in a season that's taken a downward turn, but that's the situation with which the team is dealing.
Big challenge awaits at Ohio State
On Saturday, they'll deal with a bigger challenge that they've faced the past two weeks. The Gophers meet second-ranked Ohio State at Ohio Stadium, and Kaliakmanis will have a chance to gauge his development against a defense that allows the nation's second-fewest points (9.9) and passing yards (149.8).
"To be the starter in the Big Ten, to run the offense, to do all the things we do in our program, it takes a while,'' Fleck said. "And he's handled it really well. He's had some really, really amazing highs and some pretty deep lows. But he has matured and grown up. Everything that's happened in a step-back way, he has used it to propel himself forward.''
In the 49-30 loss at Purdue last week, the Gophers entrusted Kaliakmanis to stretch the field more than he had in previous games. The result was nine passing plays of 20 yards or longer, including two that went for touchdowns.
"One thing I keep preaching to him is staying on schedule on early downs,'' Gophers offensive coordinator Greg Harbaugh Jr. said. "… Get us into second-and-manageable, potentially get us into third-and-short.''
Kaliakmanis will be the first to tell you this is not the type of season he envisioned. He saw action in five games in 2022 in place of the injured Tanner Morgan and showed flashes of potential, especially in leading the Gophers to comeback wins over Nebraska and Wisconsin.
"When an opportunity arises, we have to make plays,'' Kaliakmanis said. "It's situational football. You never know what play is going to win the game.''
Taking time for self-assessment
During the Gophers' bye week in mid-October, Kaliakmanis did some soul-searching. He knew he could be playing better and wanted to fix the issues that were preventing him from doing so.
"The bye week was a really hard week for me,'' he said. "I had to come to the realization that I'm not playing the way that I want to play, that I should be playing. It was a lot of deep thinking, a lot of film study.''
He sought out his coaches, too. "What am I doing wrong? What do I need to do to get better?'' Kaliakmanis said. "… I'm still working on those things, but just realizing what they are is going to hopefully get me to my ultimate goal.''
Much of the issue with Kaliakmanis this season has been his accuracy, which sits at 52.2% (129-for-247) and ranks eighth among Big Ten starters. In Minnesota's five wins, he's completing 58.3% with four TD passes and four interceptions. In the five losses, his accuracy dips to 46.5% with nine TD passes and three interceptions.
Fleck sees Kaliakmanis taking lessons from his tough games and applying those to become a better passer and decision-maker.
While Kaliakmanis has bounced throws at times and has thrown a fastball when something that required touch would have been better, he also hasn't always been helped by his receiving corps. According to Pro Football Focus, the Gophers have 21 dropped passes this season, third most in the Big Ten behind Wisconsin (27) and Penn State (25). That's a big jump from the previous two seasons when PFF listed the Gophers with 13 dropped passes in both 2021 and 2022.
"If you look at this particular game in the second half,'' Fleck said of the 49-30 loss at Purdue, "there's two drops in the first three possessions that just killed the drive.''
When asked about any offensive struggles, Kaliakmanis immediately volunteers to take the blame. He is hopeful that all the tough lessons and self-evaluation will result in him being a better quarterback going forward.
"I'm nowhere near where I want to be or where I'm gonna be,'' he said. "I've got a lot of work to do. And I know that it's hard, but it's true.''