Gophers Blow 21-Point Lead vs Northwestern in Arguably the Worst Loss of PJ Fleck Era

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Northwestern
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

With just over two minutes remaining in the 3rd quarter Saturday night, when the Minnesota Gophers extended their lead vs the Northwestern Wildcats to 21 points, week 4 was feeling like the exact elixir PJ Fleck’s stumbling Gophers needed to right their 2023 season.

Minnesota Gophers surrender 21-point lead vs Northwestern

Then, the Wildcats scored one touchdown… and a second touchdown… before finally, with just 5 seconds remaining in the contest, Northwestern scored a third-straight TD and tied the game at 31. Suddenly, what looked like a walk-away victory was in jeopardy of becoming a program-altering loss.

Overtime didn’t treat the Gophers any better. With Darius Taylor on the sidelines nursing an apparent injury, replacement running back Bryce Williams & QB Athan Kaliakmanis won the coin toss but failed to find the end zone, before settling for a field goal from the 2-yard line.

Northwestern then scored on their first play of OT, and just like that, the Gophers were left stunned at Ryan Field.

Even as Northwestern crept back into this football game, it never really felt like they had a chance until the closing minutes of the 4th quarter. But when they tied it up in the final seconds, an unsettling feeling settled in quickly.

Season crushing loss for Minnesota Gophers

Taking a step back, this was a must-win game for the Minnesota Gophers. They have one more non-conference game remaining on their 2023 schedule, vs the Louisiana Ragin Cajuns next weekend. After that, they get Michigan, Iowa, Ohio State and Wisconsin in four of their final 7 weeks.

Related: Michigan State Interested in PJ Fleck as Next Head Coach

PJ Fleck thought he could win this game like he’s won so many that have come before it. Jump out to an early lead and hand the game off to your running backs and Joe Rossi’s defense. Not a bad plan when your true freshman running back is going like Darius Taylor was on Saturday night.

Unfortunately, his running backs stopped picking up first downs, halfway through the 3rd quarter, and his normally dependable defense allowed big play after big play. In the end, it was arguably the worst loss of PJ Fleck’s career at Minnesota, right up there with the loss vs Bowling Green and Illinois in 2021 and the loss to Iowa in 2019.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan