The Minnesota Golden Gophers (3-2) stopped their two-game skid, rallying from a 17-14 halftime deficit to vanquish the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns (3-2) with a strong second half.
Zach Evans. With Big Ten leading rusher Darius Taylor sidelined due to an unspecified leg injury suffered on his final carry against Northwestern, head coach P.J. Fleck was left without his workhorse on offense, forcing him to return to his pair-and-a-spare approach at running back. Bryce Williams got the start, but it was Zach Evans who looked the part. The redshirt freshman didn’t see the field the first four games — Fleck has made vague references to practice and preparation when addressing Evans’ absence — and he looked like a man on a mission from his first carry onward. Evans finished with 15 carries for 85 yards and a touchdown.
More aggressive offensive play-calling. My favorite play-call of the game came on 4th & 2 at the Ragin’ Cajuns’ 37-yard line with five minutes left on the clock. If you recall, Minnesota punted from the very same spot a week ago, only then they were clinging to a seven-point lead. Here, the Gophers had an 11-point lead. Fleck decided to go for it. Offensive coordinator Greg Harbaugh Jr. dialed up a play-action pass and Louisiana saw nine of their defenders bite on the play fake, allowing Daniel Jackson to get behind the defense for a 37-yard touchdown catch.
The Gophers adopt the “tush push.” After having their fair share of struggles in short yardage situations through the first four games, the Gophers appear to have adopted the “tush push” made famous by Jalen Hurts and the Philadelphia Eagles. It is a version of the quarterback sneak in which the quarterback gets an extra shove from behind courtesy of his teammates. Boasting a size advantage up front, Minnesota used the play six times against the Ragin’ Cajuns and were successful every time, picking up five first downs and scoring a touchdown.
Jack Henderson. With how much Tyler Nubin has struggled of late, the star of the secondary has been nickel back Jack Henderson. The former Southeastern transfer had a breakout game against North Carolina and has continued to make plays since then. Henderson led the team with seven tackles against Louisiana and also recorded an interception in the fourth quarter, capitalizing on a poor decision by the quarterback under pressure from defensive end Anthony Smith.
“Did this one mean more being a Louisiana guy?” pic.twitter.com/IHMY8JDERG— Minnesota Football (@GopherFootball) October 1, 2023
The Gopher defense. Coming into this game, all eyes were on a defense that suffered a nuclear meltdown in the fourth quarter against Northwestern. Were the deficiencies on defense correctable? The outlook was grim in the first half against Louisiana, as Minnesota gave up seven plays of 15 yards or more, allowed the Ragin’ Cajuns to convert on four of six third downs, and surrendered 17 points. The Gophers were also getting gashed on the ground by sophomore quarterback Zeon Chriss, who rolled up 67 rushing yards on seven carries. The Minnesota defensive linemen were not very disciplined in their pass rushing lanes and the Gopher linebackers were struggling to tackle Chriss in the open field.
The second half was a different story. Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi turned up the heat on Chriss, who was 6-of-13 for 71 yards over the final two quarters and threw two interceptions. He was also limited to eight rushing yards on three carries in the second half. The Minnesota defense nearly pitched a second half shoutout, but a missed tackle by Maverick Baranowski sprung running back Jacob Kibodi for a 52-yard touchdown run with three minutes left.
Athan Kaliakmanis. After a career-worst performance against North Carolina, things are looking up for the Gophers’ starting signal caller. Granted, Harbaugh seems to have simplified things for his quarterback, but I imagine they’ll look to add more to his plate as he progresses. Against Louisiana, Kaliakmanis was 12-of-14 for 146 passing yards with two touchdowns and an interception. The interception to end the first half was egregious, but it was the redshirt sophomore trying to force a play. He will learn. In his last two games, Kaliakmanis has completed 78.9% of his passes and thrown more touchdowns (4) than interceptions (1).
The injury to Le’Meke Brockington. Not good. You hate to see it.
Quentin Redding. After the Ragin’ Cajuns marched 75 yards on their opening drive to take a 7-0 lead, the Gophers were forced to begin their first possession at their own four-yard line. Why? Because Quentin Redding decided to field a kickoff that was headed out of bounds. He caught the ball at the four-yard line and his momentum carried him out of bounds. For the second straight week, Redding hurt the team with a bone-headed special teams blunder. What baffles me is the lack of accountability. Sean Tyler fumbles twice against Eastern Michigan and is essentially benched the next two games. So why doesn’t Redding get similar treatment? It’s not as if he is a difference maker in the return game, and I know they’ve got other options on the roster.