After being dismantled 38-14 at the hands of the No. 18 Duke Blue Devils last weekend, Northwestern returns to Ryan Field for its Big Ten home opener against Minnesota. To learn more about the Golden Gophers, Inside NU had the pleasure of speaking to GopherIllustrated’s Ryan Burns, who gave insight to the strengths and weaknesses of P.J. Fleck's squad.
Inside NU: How would you judge the Gophers through the first quarter of the season? Was Minnesota’s performance against UNC surprising, or had the team exceeded expectations in its first two games?
Ryan Burns: The win-loss column looks like how I expected it would, but it’s the “how they got there” that has been surprising. Minnesota’s offense hasn’t clicked at any point, really, of the first three games. We saw it at times during the Eastern Michigan game, but then they struggled immensely in the red zone. The offense ranks dead-last in the Big Ten in scoring at 17.0 points per game, and that also puts them 119th nationally in FBS football. The Gopher defense has largely been what I expected, outside of Drake Maye hitting explosive plays on them last week.
Specifically against North Carolina last week, not much more could have gone wrong. They had open shots on offense all game, but the quarterback struggled to deliver accurate throws. On defense, they allowed more than 20 points for the first time in their last nine games and numerous explosive plays and mental breakdowns from both the coaching staff and players went into that. Just so many uncharacteristic things with a P.J. Fleck team, and they all compounded at the same time.
Inside NU: With Tanner Morgan no longer with the program, how has Athan Kaliakmanis performed in his first season as the starting quarterback? What are his strengths, and what does he need to improve on?
Ryan Burns: [Kaliakmanis] has been incredibly inconsistent. While the stats don’t always tell the story, they do in this case. Through a quarter of the season, here’s where the Gophers’ passing game ranks in FBS football out of 132 teams.
- 129th in yards per attempt (5.0)
- 129th in completion percentage (50.6%)
- 123rd in passing touchdowns (one)
- 130th in QB rating (87.37)
- 79th in passing attempts per game (29.5)
- 123rd in passing yards per game at 148.7
The plays are there to be made, but the third-year guy is struggling to hit them consistently. Minnesota’s pass-catchers of Daniel Jackson, Corey Crooms, Brevyn Spann-Ford and Lemeke Brockington among others are open, and he’s just gotta hit them. Ball placement has been an issue with allowing them to catch and run. He’s got a great arm and is athletic enough to maneuver around the pocket to extend plays and run for a first down, but he’s gotta be more consistent.
Inside NU: Last season, Minnesota ran for over 300 yards on Northwestern, and even without Mo Ibrahim, the Gophers have averaged nearly 175 yards on the ground each week in 2023. What is the reason for the success on the ground?
Ryan Burns: Darius Taylor has been a revelation. He’s now the back-to-back Freshman of the Week in the Big Ten in his first games with carries as a true freshman. He’s run for over 100 yards each of the last two weeks, and he’s a power back with patience. The Gopher offensive line has also really started to gel in the last two weeks after a rough opener against Nebraska. They brought it to North Carolina and Eastern Michigan, so both Taylor and the Minnesota Moving Company have been playing off one another.
Inside NU: Northwestern brought in two transfer wide receivers in A.J. Henning and Cam Johnson. What will Minnesota do to defend the duo, and what is your evaluation of the Golden Gophers’ secondary?
Ryan Burns: There’s been a lot of talk about Henning from the Minnesota coaches and players this week. They know he’s the most electric playmaker that the Wildcats have, and that they’ll use him as a rusher, slot receiver and returner. Minnesota’s secondary has held up more or less, especially at corner. It’s been the newer safeties alongside All-Big Ten Tyler Nubin that have had mental lapses at times.
Minnesota’s MO on defense has been to stop the run and not allow explosive plays. This week is no different.
Inside NU: Who is your X-factor for Saturday’s game, and what is your prediction for Northwestern vs. Minnesota?
Ryan Burns: Can Athan Kaliakmanis start to hit on his throws and find a rhythm? As I said earlier, the pass-catchers and play design have been good, but the inexperienced quarterback has been missing throws. If that continues, Northwestern absolutely has a chance to steal this game at home. If Athan starts to hit throws, this could get out of hand for the Wildcats in the second half.
I’ll say Minnesota wins 24-10 though, which is a middle ground of all the outcomes to me. Northwestern has been inconsistent at best on offense, and the defense has shown more leaks through the air than on the ground.