3 Takeaways From Gophers’ Ugly Season-Opening Victory Over Huskers

The Minnesota Gophers opened their 2023 season vs the Nebraska Cornhuskers on Thursday night, in an ugly game that neither team really deserved to win.

It was a sloppy offensive matchup that never should have reached the 23-point total it eventually did. The Huskers’ only touchdown came on a broken trick play that started with a backward pass, looked like a sure fumble and ended with a wide open Husker receiver standing in the end zone with the football.

The Gophers struggled to maintain drives all game, only finding a rhythm when QB Athan Kaliakmanis got hot. But in the end, Minnesota outlasted their Big Ten West foe, narrowly avoiding a season-opening loss that surely would have haunted Minnesota all year long. Here are 3 takeaways from the Gophers’ 13-10 victory.

1. Special Teams Nearly Kills Gophers (Again)

Gophers’ special teams, under PJ Fleck, has never been a strong suit. On Thursday night, Rob Wenger’s group proved that some things never change.

New placekicker, Dragan Kesich, missed a 54-yard field goal that flipped the field during the 1st half. To start the 2nd half, Minnesota surrendered a 63-yard kick return that gave Nebraska the ball at the Gophers’ 35 yard line.

Then, after a key stop by the defense in the 3rd quarter, Minnesota committed a roughing the punter penalty on 4th and 19, giving Nebraska a fresh set of downs. From every angle, the Gophers’ special teams was terrible on Thursday night.

Kesich did redeem himself, and the rest of the Minnesota special teams group, by hitting the game-winning field goal, as time expired.

2. Minnesota’s Defense Looks Great (Again)

Much like the special teams group, it appears some things never change. Since Joe Rossi took over the Minnesota Gophers defense, midway through the 2018 season, it’s been one of the best units in the country. That looks to be the case again, in 2023.

Without Minnesota’s stout defensive play vs Nebraska, this game would have been over before the 4th quarter got underway. Outside of one broken play touchdown in the 3rd quarter, Rossi’s crew was nearly perfect, making up for all the deficiencies the Gophers showed on both special teams and offense.

Rossi’s defense held Huskers QB, Jeff Sims, to just 114 yards through the air and picked him off three times. They also forced two fumbles, one of which Minnesota recovered. Senior safety, Tyler Nubin, catapulted himself up draft boards around the NFL, flying all over the field, disrupting the offensive rhythm and rewarding himself with two interceptions, the last of which led to the Gophers’ game-winning field goal.

3. Offense Goes as Athan Kaliakmanis Goes

Thursday night’s opener may have looked like the same old Gophers, in a lot of ways, but their attack on offense did not. As I’ve noted multiple times, leading up to this game, Minnesota’s offense in 2023 is not built on its rushing attack. It’s built around redshirt sophomore QB, Athan Kaliakmanis.

The Gophers ran for just 55 total yards vs the Cornhuskers, averaging a putrid 2.2 yards per carry. The only time they moved the ball efficiently, it was through the air. Kaliakmanis finished 24 of 44 for 196 yards, 1 INT and 1 game-tying TD.

Arguably their best drive of the game ended in an interception, proving this offense will go as far as Kaliakmanis takes it this season.

Then, to drive the point home, PJ Fleck put the football in Athan’s hands at the end of the 2nd half and the redshirt sophomore paid his head coach off by hitting Daniel Jackson for the matchup’s only touchdown. It came on 4th down, with the game on the line. Jackson’s toe-tapping catch was simply magnificent.

A win is a win…

It wasn’t pretty, but the Minnesota Gophers are 1-0 and that is all that matters. Remember, they don’t ask “how”, they ask “how many”. Remember, the 2019 squad — which finished 11-2 and won the Outback Bowl — should have lost early non-conference games vs SDSU, Fresno State and Georgia Southern.

Huge dub for the 2023 maroon and gold.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan