EVANSTON, ILL. — Good afternoon from the Chicago suburbs on sunny first day of fall. The Gophers take on Northwestern tonight (6:30, BTN, 100.3-FM) and will try to get back on the winning track after their 31-13 loss at North Carolina last week. A victory would move the Gophers to 3-1 overall and, more importantly, 2-0 in the Big Ten as they try to win the West Division in the final year of divisional play.
The Gophers' biggest area of emphasis entering the game is fixing what ails their offense, particularly the passing game. Third-year sophomore quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis, of Antioch, Ill., returns to his home state and aims to play better than he did at North Carolina, where he completed 11 of 29 passes for 133 yards with an interception. Accuracy has been an issue with Kaliakmanis, who's completing 51.1% of his passes. He has been hampered by dropped passes and receivers slipping during routes.
"Guys that go through this process where they have a great game, then they have a good game, then they might have a below-average game, and it's an up-and-down roller coaster,'' said Greg Harbaugh Jr., Gophers co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. "We have to do a great job as coaches to make sure that the that roller coaster keeps going up.''
If the Gophers can shore up their passing game, that should help in another area of concern – their red-zone performance. Minnesota has four touchdowns, seven field goals and a safety this year, and their red-zone touchdown rate (40%) ranks 125th in the nation.
The Gophers defense gave up four pass plays of 38 yards or longer against North Carolina star quarterback Drake Maye, and they also allowed the Tar Heels to convert 12 of 17 third-down situations. Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi wasn't pleased.
"We gave up too many explosive plays,'' he said. "We didn't do well enough on third down. To me the game came down to those two things, and that's why they scored points. … Obviously, we're not in this for participation trophies. We didn't do enough to limit the score, and we didn't give ourselves a chance to win.''
Northwestern (1-2, 0-1 Big Ten) is coming off a 38-14 loss at Duke. The Wildcats had their best showing of the young season a week earlier in a 38-7 romp over Texas-El Paso. Under interim coach David Braun, who took over after the firing of Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern is averaging 19.7 points per game and giving up 23.0.