I wanted to let this loss breathe a little before diving in and writing about it. The Gophers’ embarrassing loss to Northwestern on Saturday was a total collapse in all three phases of the game.
Last week I began writing out a “perspective” piece following the North Carolina game that was centered on the number of mistakes being made by this year’s Gopher squad. Missed passes, missed tackles, missed blocks, blown assignments and other such correctable errors that are the result of having a team with so many new contributors.
Athan Kaliakmanis is a talented quarterback who has struggled at times this season, but it should be noted that this is his first season as QB1 and there is going to be a learning curve for the redshirt sophomore. This learning curve applies to the interior of the OL, Maverick Baranowski, Tre’Von Jones, Jack Henderson, Darius Green, etc. These are talented kids. But the combination of not having enough guys to cover up for their potential mistakes and perhaps not being put in the right place to succeed (at the right time) is rearing its head.
This past Saturday night, this was on full display again. In the North Carolina game, there were a number of missed opportunities. This resulted in a loss to a more talented team. No big deal, really. UNC is a good team and should have won that game. The Northwestern loss? That was just inexcusable.
Really that loss is inexcusable against any opponent. Starting the 4th quarter, leading by 21 points and sitting at a 97% win probability is a game you should win, regardless of how good the other team is. Even with just 2:16 remaining the Gophers were 96% favorites to win after Northwestern was called for a false start on 4th and 3. But Northwestern found a way to not only convert 4th and 8 but found a way to score and eventually win. Or perhaps Minnesota found ways to allow them to win.
I’ve been hearing the debate about where this loss ranks in the pantheon of great Gopher collapses. Is this as bad as 2003 Michigan? Is it worse than 2005 Wisconsin? Maybe the 2006 Texas Tech Insight Bowl? Are you curled up in a ball on the floor yet?
I can see the one argument that this loss is worse because those teams were at least good teams. Michigan went to the Rose Bowl that year, ranked 4th in the country. Wisconsin beat #7 Auburn in the Citrus Bowl. 2023 Northwestern? This team is not going to be ranked and they may only have 1 more win on their schedule (Howard). So the notion that this loss is worse because this opponent is worse...I can see the argument.
I’m actually going with a different perspective here. This loss is bad, for sure. And it never should have happened against anybody, Never mind that this team couldn’t score 21 points in 8 quarters against Duke and Rutgers! It’s bad. But it is not AS bad because there is really nothing on the line. This was not a rivalry game, this was not a game we needed to get the program to the Rose Bowl and ultimately it was just a bad loss.
This 2023 team is not as bad as their 4th quarter last weekend would indicate and it leaves even more uncertainty about how the remaining games will play out. But this 2023 team was never going to be competing for anything special. Of course, the rest of the West is so bad that “anybody could win it.” Including us...before this past Saturday.
But this year’s team is about competing, getting better and having the chance to be something more special in 2024.
Nobody is “playing for next year.” The staff and players are working their asses off to win every game this year. But the reality check of fan expectations (at least for me) is that this was going to be an inconsistent season. So many new players at key positions. This team is learning how to play together, make fewer mistakes and get better.
This may pay off in the final 1⁄3 of the season. It may pay off with a win at Iowa and/or over Wisconsin. But the goal is to get better. Get better as this season goes along and get better for next year.
There are very legitimate questions to be asked. Questions specifically about this loss as well as broader questions about some systemic issues that we have seen more than we should. But there is still time to respond this this, get better and move on.