Gophers Offense Returns to Bread & Butter vs Louisiana; Defense Eventually Wakes Up

NCAA Football: UL Lafayette at Minnesota
Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Gophers had to play the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns on Saturday without superstar freshman running back, Darius Taylor, who was ruled out with a leg injury before the game. Minnesota found the victory circle, in the end, but it was a much more trying contest than what the final score of 35-24 indicates, at least for one half.

Minnesota Gophers start slow vs Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns

PJ Fleck’s offense struggled to find an identity early on, in part due to silly mental mistakes that put them in bad field position during the 1st quarter. While the offense stumbled out of the gate, Joe Rossi’s defense didn’t even make it to the racetrack.

Tyler Nubin & Co were nowhere to be found for the first two quarters of Saturday’s game, before finally turning it up in the 2nd half. Just one week after allowing 300+ yards and 26 points in the 2nd half of a loss vs Northwestern, here they were again giving up 200+ yards and 17 points in the 1st half vs Louisiana.

Gopher defense sleepwalks through 1st half, clamps down in 2nd

But a different defense came out of the Huntington Bank Stadium locker room after halftime. Who knows what woke them up but Rossi’s defense held the Ragin’ Cajuns scoreless for over 1.5 quarters in the 2nd half, until finally allowing a 52-yard touchdown run with 3 minutes remaining in the game.

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By then, however, the Gophers were up three possessions and the game was already over. Minnesota’s defensive performance left much to be desired, especially with Michigan coming to Dinkytown next weekend, but after the 1st half performance, the fact that they rebounded in the 2nd is enough to breathe a sigh of relief.

Transfer, Jack Henderson, continues to be one of the biggest portal pickups of the PJ Fleck era and that is saying something. After a tough start, Tyler Nubin rebounded to make a bunch of plays, including a huge interception late in the 3rd quarter with the Ragin’ Cajuns driving.

PJ Fleck Returns Gophers offense to bread and butter run, run, run game

On offense, PJ Fleck has crawled completely back into his ground game happy place. Even with Darius Taylor out, PJ Fleck was determined to run Louisiana out of Minneapolis. Redshirt freshman, Zach Evans, got 15 carries (85 yards, 1 TD), senior Bryce Williams got 15 of his own (53 yards, 1 TD).

Both Sean Tyler and (QB) Athan Kaliakmanis got 10 carries apiece, too. For Athan, it was only four short of his passing attempt total of 14. If you’re counting, that’s a 51 to 14 run to pass ratio, about as lopsided as we’ve seen a Gophers offense.

If nothing else, Kaliakmanis was efficient, completing 12 of those 14 passes, including a beautiful touchdown to Daniel Jackson the first of two TD connections between the two.

Fleck knew he could run to victory this weekend and, surprise, he jumped on the opportunity, especially after redshirt sophomore QB, Athan Kaliakmanis threw an explicit interception at the end of the 1st half.

Zach Evans shines in Taylor’s absence; Athan gets few (but efficient) passing reps

How does the Gophers return to their ground game roots help Athan Kaliakmanis in the future or next week vs the Michigan Wolverines, when he will surely have to pass at least 30 times?

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The answer to those questions are yet to be determined. But one thing was for sure, when Minnesota came out of the locker room after halftime. PJ wasn’t going to let his redshirt sophomore QB throw the 2023 season into danger Saturday afternoon.

Zach Evans was the most impressive running back that Minnesota put onto the field Saturday. There’s no doubt that, even after an injury riddled start to his career, Evans and Taylor will be a devastating combination in the Gophers backfield.

If Taylor does return sooner rather than later, I expect Fleck to lean into his new dynamic freshmen duo going forward, much like we saw in 2021, when Mo Ibrahim was injured and the Gophers were forced to turn their run-heavy offense over to freshmen phenoms, Mar’Keise “Bucky” Irving and Ky Thomas.

As mentioned earlier, the Gophers will take on the Michigan Wolverines at home next Saturday night (6:30 pm CDT). The game will be on national TV (NBC).

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan

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