Was this a good year for Gophers football? Well, yes and no
Minnesota had aspirations to reach the Big Ten title game. But the Gophers lost crucial intra-division games to Purdue, Illinois and Iowa, and it cost them a Big Ten West championship.
MINNEAPOLIS -- It’s important in life to have the ability to believe two contrasting things can be true at the same time. When reflecting on the University of Minnesota football program’s 2022 season, that mind-set is necessary. Minnesota’s season was both a success and a failure.
Minnesota went 8-4 overall and 5-4 in the Big Ten. They kept Paul Bunyan’s Axe with a 23-16 win over Wisconsin in the regular season finale Saturday. After winning two of 23 games against the Badgers from 1995-2017, Minnesota has won three of the past five against a huge border rival.
But the Gophers lost crucial intra-division games to Purdue, Illinois and Iowa, and it cost them a Big Ten West championship. Minnesota had aspirations to reach the Big Ten title game. The Gophers had the veteran-laden team to do it but couldn’t overcome three primary injuries, and didn’t have a strong enough run-pass balance on offense to win the wide-open division race.
Before a bowl game in late December, the U now must watch Purdue play Michigan in the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis on Saturday night. From their couches, they will be thinking woulda, coulda and shoulda.
Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck divvied up the four losses into two categories. He said they got “beat” in two games, with Illinois and Penn State outplaying Minnesota and earning those victories in consecutive weeks in October. Fleck said they “lost” the two others, meaning Minnesota’s own issues, shortcomings and breakdowns cost them against Purdue and Iowa.
Minnesota’s over-reliance on star tailback Mo Ibrahim came back to bite them when Ibrahim’s ankle injury in the Michigan State win meant he couldn’t play against Purdue the following week. Minnesota managed 47 rushing yards on 26 carries against the Boilermakers.
If there is one play to encapsulate the season’s missed opportunity, it is Tanner Morgan’s pass into the end zone hitting off slot receiver Michael Brown-Stephens’s body and being intercepted in the end zone by Purdue safety Cam Allen.
Minnesota was on its way to tying the game at 10 just before halftime; instead they had to keep playing catch up in an eventual 20-10 defeat.
Bell out, Kaliakmanis in
The Gophers’ receiving corps struggled for most of the Big Ten schedule to overcome the season-ending injury to Chris Autman-Bell. Losing a top target will hurt any program, but Minnesota needs to get to the point where an injury like this isn’t that devastating.
Minnesota got help at this position group via the NCAA transfer portal on Monday, when former Badgers receiver Markus Allen committed to the U. The four-star recruit out of Ohio had 10 receptions across eight games for Wisconsin in 2021-22.
When Morgan suffered a concussion late in the Illinois loss, redshirt freshman Athan Kaliakmanis stepped in and made his first start before nearly 110,000 fans in Penn State’s White Out game. The Gophers didn’t take many chances early with a new starting QB in the 45-17 loss, and that conservative approach continued with him in the Iowa loss.
Minnesota didn’t attempt a pass over 20 yards against the Hawkeyes until they trailed 13-10 with less than a minute remaining; that approach contributed to Fleck and Co. falling to 0-6 against the Hawkeyes since 2017. Fleck called this year’s Iowa game “the hardest loss” of his 10-year career because of how much he saw his players pour into it, and the emotions they displayed afterward.
Against Wisconsin, Minnesota was much more aggressive through the air. With Ibrahim contained, Kaliakmanis earned Big Ten freshman of the week honors after he threw for 319 yards and completed nine passes of 15 yards or more.
Since 2017, Fleck has improved Minnesota’s overall standing. Since Murray Warmath left in 1971, the Gophers have had six of 50 seasons with a winning percentage of .667 or better. Fleck has three of them: 2019, ’21 and ’22. In all three of those seasons, the Gophers were on the cusp of winning the West before falling short in November. Losing every game to Iowa and coming close but not winning the West are Fleck’s biggest failings.
“I still remember people, (wife) Heather and I, every time they would see us, (they’d say), ‘Just beat Wisconsin and you can stay forever,” Fleck said Saturday. “Well, we’ve beaten Wisconsin twice (before Saturday) and you all wanted me fired last week. Look how that goes.”
Fleck drew criticisms from local media members after the Hawkeyes game, but not calls for him to be canned. He has raised the level of play at Minnesota, but with that comes expectations to keep going higher.
The Big Ten will keep its division format in 2023, but the odds of getting to the championship game will be more difficult for Minnesota next fall.
The Gophers lose stars in Ibrahim and center John Michael Schmitz, plus the school’s winningest quarterback in Morgan. They also bid farewell to safety Jordan Howden (and possibly safety partner Tyler Nubin), linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin, cornerback Terell Smith, defensive end Thomas Rush and both guards Chuck Filliaga, Axel Ruschmeyer and others.
After missing Ohio State and Michigan on this year’s schedule, Minnesota will play both powerhouses in 2023.
Then there’s expected improvements within the West. Luke Fickell was hired as Wisconsin’s head coach on Sunday after having huge success at Cincinnati. On Saturday, Matt Ruhle was hired at Nebraska after his big success at Baylor and Temple before a poor two-plus-year stint with the Carolina Panthers.
Given the landscape in 2022, Minnesota had success, but it also wasn’t enough. And with what’s on the horizon in 2023 and beyond — No. 4-ranked Southern Cal and No. 17 UCLA are scheduled to join the Big Ten in Fall 2024 — this season could be remembered as the “what might have been” year.
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