PJ Fleck Must Trust Athan to Beat Iowa

PHOTO: AARON LAVINSKY - STAR TRIBUNE

Here we are again. It’s Pig Week.

The Minnesota vs Iowa football game will take place on Saturday for the 116th time, a rivalry that the Gophers have mostly dominated (62-51-2) throughout history. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case of late and Minnesota is now in jeopardy of falling to .500 (43-42-2) in the battle for the Floyd of Rosedale trophy.

PJ Fleck is 0-5 vs the Iowa Hawkeyes. It’s the only Big Ten West team that PJ has yet to defeat in his University of Minnesota head coaching tenure. And this inability to get over the Kirk Ference hump has cost the Gophers TWO trips to the Big Ten title game (2019, 2021).

Tanner Morgan + PJ Fleck Bad vs Iowa

Tanner Morgan’s 1st half collapse in 2019 is the missed opportunity most fans remember. But it was last season at Kinnick Stadium where PJ Fleck’s ‘don’t beat yourself’ attitude combined with a bad Tanner Morgan cost the Gophers a program-changing victory and a Big Ten West championship.

Minnesota dominated time of possession (40:19 to 19:41) and won the turnover battle (1 to 0). That’s exactly how PJ likes to win games. But that game didn’t end in a victory. It ended in a 27-22 defeat. Why? Because Tanner Morgan was terrible and his refusal to throw the ball downfield crushed the Gophers that night.

It wasn’t as easy to see it on the television broadcast but I was lucky enough to watch from the Kinnick Stadium press box, where it was easy to see the multitude of open wide receivers downfield. Tanner just refused to throw the ball deep until late in the 4th quarter, when he hit a WIDE OPEN Chris Autman-Bell for a touchdown.

This was Morgan’s only “Big Time Throw” of the night, according to PFF. But believe me, receivers were running open downfield for the entire contest, especially in the 2nd half.

PJ is a Large Part of the Problem

But Tanner’s refusal to chuck the football, which has been a problem throughout his career, rarely lands on his shoulders, alone. PJ Fleck is a huge part of the problem, whenever it comes to the Gophers’ deep shot hesitancy, especially vs Iowa.

The Hawkeyes are notorious for letting opponents beat themselves. They win a lot of games by taking advantage of mistakes and turnovers. And Fleck is deathly afraid of falling into that trap. In fact, he has been talking about exactly that all week long, even mentioning a fly trap plant.

“Iowa knows who they are and they’re very good defensively. They’re efficient on offense, they play field position, they put you in bad positions and they make you make mistakes because they don’t make mistakes.” PJ Fleck (92Noon w/Paul Allen – KFAN)

“…that’s how they beat you too. They’re kinda like one of those plant traps. They just stay open, open, open and eventually the bug can’t help itself. It goes in and gets the pollen and then poof, it swallows you up! And that’s how they win a ton of games.”PJ Fleck (Gopher Football Weekly – KFAN)

Enter Athan Kaliakmanis

Saturday is Senior Day at Huntington Bank Stadium but the expectation is that Athan Kaliakmanis will be the starter vs Iowa. It’s believed that Tanner Morgan is dealing with multiple concussions over his last few games, which would mean his return this season is unlikely.

On the field this weekend, Kaliakmanis might be the better QB to have under center. It’s true, he played poorly last week in the win vs Northwestern. Still, he has the skill and mindset to exploit how the Hawkeyes have beaten Tanner Morgan, since he took over as the Gophers starter.

Athan can and will run, something that Iowa knew Tanner wouldn’t do. But even more importantly, if the Hawkeye defense allows open receivers down the field, Kaliakmanis will throw it to them. AK8 has a gunslinger mentality and won’t be afraid to make Iowa pay for stacking the box and ignoring deep receivers.

Let Athan Throw

As long as PJ Fleck allows Athan to shoot his shots, Minnesota should win this game. Iowa’s defense is great but their offense is historically bad. Even if the redshirt freshman QB makes some mistakes, it’s unlikely the Hawkeye offense makes the Gophers pay for them.

So instead of playing sphincter-tight football, PJ and Co needs to have some fun on Saturday. Open shit up, let Athan toss the ball around a little bit. Because if this Minnesota team comes out afraid to lose to Iowa (again), they’ll probably lose (again).

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan