The nonconference portion of the season is over for the Gophers, who closed it with a 35-24 victory over Louisiana on Saturday. The non-Big Ten slate went basically as the preseason prognosticators would suggest, with wins over Eastern Michigan and Louisiana and a loss at North Carolina.
Mixed in the season's first month were a pair of Big Ten games — the late rally for a 13-10 win over Nebraska and the 21-point fourth-quarter collapse that led to a 37-34 overtime loss at Northwestern. That second result wasn't expected.
This week, Gophers embark on a stretch of seven games over eight weeks of Big Ten play to close the season and stamp their 2023 legacy.
It starts with what might be the biggest challenge of all: Second-ranked Michigan, which has been in the College Football Playoff the past two seasons, visits Huntington Bank Stadium on Saturday night. Mixed in are a trip to Iowa, which hasn't lost to a P.J. Fleck-coached Gophers team and where Minnesota hasn't won since 1999; a trip to No. 4 Ohio State, which is 40-2 vs. the Gophers since 1969, and the home finale against archrival Wisconsin.
The Gophers weren't the favorites to win the Big Ten's West Division but were considered contenders. And given the state of the West so far — every team but 1-0 Wisconsin has at least one Big Ten loss — the division is up for grabs. For the Gophers, though, that loss to Northwestern hangs like an anchor, and shedding that weight likely would take a win over Michigan or Ohio State to avoid three or more Big Ten defeats.
The Gophers, of course, would gladly accept the West title should they find a way to win it, but the first task should be earning three more victories for bowl eligibility. In the win over Louisiana, three areas stood out as pivotal for Minnesota going forward.
Quarterback: It's easy to forget that Athan Kaliakmanis is in his first full season as a starter and that he's not yet a finished product. On Saturday, he showed a second consecutive week of improvement, completing 12 of 14 passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns. He led the Gophers to a season-high five touchdowns, using both his feet and right arm to keep the Ragin' Cajuns off-balance.
Kaliakmanis showed poise on a key play in the fourth quarter. With the Gophers up 28-17, Kaliakmanis faced heavy pressure from Louisiana linebacker Cameron Whitfield on third-and-9 from the Ragin' Cajuns 44-yard line. Kaliakmanis got off a pass just in time, finding Corey Crooms Jr. for a 7-yard gain. The play didn't move the chains, but it did allow the Gophers' coaching staff to make a big decision on fourth-and-2.
Head coach and play-caller: Fleck and co-offensive coordinator Greg Harbaugh Jr. got creative on that fourth-and-2, calling for Kaliakmanis to execute a play-action fake. The quarterback then found wide receiver Daniel Jackson uncovered over the middle for a 37-yard TD play for a 35-17 lead with 5:21 to play.
"It was just a perfect play call for that perfect moment, if you trust your players in the pressure of the situation," Fleck said, crediting Harbaugh.
That call was part of an offensive approach that was more aggressive than it had been in previous weeks. Three times the Gophers went for it on fourth down, and three times they converted. Two of those went for touchdowns, and the other ended the game.
Linebacker: Cody Lindenberg, one of the Gophers' top defensive players and leaders, has yet to play this season because of a leg injury suffered in late August. He appeared to be close to returning at North Carolina but hasn't suited up while being listed as questionable the past two weeks.
Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi has cobbled things together with first-time starters Maverick Baranowski and Devon Williams and Western Michigan transfer Ryan Selig, but a return to health of Lindenberg would give the defense a boost.