When Athan Kaliakmanis was forced to step in for an injured Tanner Morgan in the fourth quarter of Minnesota’s 26-14 loss to Illinois earlier this season, it did not go well for the redshirt freshman quarterback. He completed only two passes and was intercepted twice.
Saturday at Nebraska was a different story.
With a start at Penn State under his belt, Kaliakmanis was called into action against the Huskers when the medical staff removed Morgan from the game after he took a hard hit from Nebraska defensive tackle Ty Robinson on a sack before halftime.
The Gophers were trailing 10-0 at the half and Kaliakmanis was charged with taking the reins of a moribund Minnesota offense that had been limited to only 31 yards in the first half.
Even with a sellout crowd at Memorial Stadium bearing down on him, head coach P.J. Fleck had little doubt his redshirt freshman signal caller could handle the pressure.
“The White Out [at Penn State] wasn’t going to be too big for him, and neither was Lincoln, Nebraska. That doesn’t rattle him,” Fleck said in his postgame press conference.
Demonstrating poise beyond his years, Kaliakmanis’s impact was immediate, leading the Gophers down the field on a scoring drive that provided their first points of the game courtesy of a 47-yard Matthew Trickett field goal to cut Nebraska’s lead down to 10-3.
On the Gophers’ next two possessions, he lit the match on the vertical passing game, first with a 38-yard pass to Dylan Wright and then with a 45-yard deep shot to a wide open Daniel Jackson. The latter sparked Minnesota’s first touchdown drive of the game, tying the score on a three-yard plunge into the end zone by Mohamed Ibrahim.
His final stat line — 6 of 12 for 137 passing yards — isn’t going to turn a lot of heads, and Kalikmanis would likely be the first person to tell you that his performance was far from perfect. But Saturday afternoon, he was exactly the spark the Gophers needed on offense, leading four scoring drives in the second half to rally for a comeback victory.
“We did things that fit him in the second half a little bit more. And I think that’s what kind of turned things a little bit for us because we were able to do some things with Athan that played to his strengths,” Fleck explained, citing Kaliakmanis’ arm and athleticism.
After the game, Ibrahim talked about the redshirt freshman’s quarterback preparedness, praising his understanding of the offense and the game plan. But Kaliakmanis was quick to turn the tables on his teammate when asked how he was able to step in and have success.
“When I feel like I have a guy like Tanner Morgan that’s able to teach me every day and learn from him, when I have an All-American running back, a center like John Michael [Schmitz], guys like that, what’s there to freeze over?”, Kaliakmanis said matter-of-factly.
He reserved most of his praise for his predecessor at quarterback.
“I couldn’t even put into words what that guy has done for me,” Kaliakmanis said of Tanner Morgan. “Every day, really, since I first got here, he has went out of his way to meet with me, has texted me to meet with him, has done so much for me in my football life, and I just couldn’t be more thankful for him. I really hope he is okay, I really do. But I’m just super thankful for him.”
Fleck deflected questions about who will be the Gophers’ starting quarterback moving forward, citing Morgan’s health as the more pressing issue. But whether this is the beginning of Kalikamanis’ tenure as Minnesota’s starting signal caller or merely a preview of the near future, Gophers fans certainly have to like what they saw from him on Saturday.