We at TNIAAM consider ourselves Syracuse Orange experts, but we definitely aren’t Minnesota Gophers experts. And with the Orange playing the Gophers in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium, it’d be nice to get a Minnesota expert in to shed some light on Syracuse’s next foe. Luckily for us, Blake Ruane from The Daily Gopher is a Minnesota expert and kindly answered some questions about the Gophers.
TNIAAM: Syracuse and Minnesota last played in the 2013 Texas Bowl. Do you remember anything from that game?
TDG: I remember that I didn’t like the ending. Minnesota had rallied from a 14-3 fourth quarter deficit to take a 17-14 lead, sparked by second-string quarterback Mitch Leidner. But once they took the lead, the Gophers’ offense couldn’t move the ball at all, culminating in a 70-yard punt return by Syracuse. The Orange converted that short field into a go-ahead touchdown, resulting in a final score of 21-17. It was Minnesota’s second straight Texas Bowl loss, and it led to the eventual transfer of starting quarterback Philip Nelson. Leidner took over and was the Gophers’ starting signal caller for the next three years — for better and for worse.
TNIAAM: How’s Mark Coyle doing? We got to enjoy him for 311 days before he left for Minnesota.
TDG: I’m sorry you didn’t at least get a full calendar year of the Mark Coyle experience, but I must tell you, it’s not much to write home about. He keeps a very low profile. Seems to like it here, though.
TNIAAM: It’s been an interesting season for Minnesota. A four game winning streak followed by a three game losing streak followed by a 4-1 record in the last five games. What happened after the losing streak to right the ship?
TDG: Well that three-game losing streak came against three good teams. Those three teams combined to finish the regular season 26-11. The four teams that Minnesota beat in their last five games finished 15-33. Playing against inferior competition was what righted the ship for the Gophers. Offensively, Minnesota struggled to move the ball consistently during that three-game skid, especially through the air. Against overmatched opponents, they were able to hand the ball off to Mohamed Ibrahim and bulldoze their way to victory. The passing game did finally show signs of life in the regular season finale, but for much of the season it was their Achilles’ heel.
TNIAAM: P.J. Fleck is sticking around after a seven-year contract extension. Yay or nay?
TDG: It was only a one-year extension from the contract he had signed the previous year, so the headlines declaring it a “seven-year contract extension” were somewhat misleading. He did also get a $1 million raise, but that was less about being rewarded for on-field accomplishments and more about keeping pace with the rest of the league. Even with the raise, he is still middle-of-the-pack in the Big Ten in terms of head coach salary. But to answer your question, I’m good with keeping him around. Fleck has yet to beat Iowa or win the Big Ten West, both of which are monkeys he — and Gopher fans — would like to have off his back. So there are a fair number of fans frustrated with his inability to get the program over the hump, but to his credit he has turned Minnesota into a consistent contender in the West. Most importantly, he has run a clean program that has never had off-the-field problems.
TNIAAM: It looks like Mohamed Ibrahim is playing. Why should Syracuse be scared?
TDG: Because this is his final game in maroon and gold and he’ll be on a mission to capture the program’s career and single-season rushing records, further cementing his place as one of the greatest running backs in school history. Ibrahim’s skillset is perfectly suited to the Gophers’ zone blocking scheme. He has incredible vision and the patience to press the line of scrimmage and wait for a running lane to open up. Ibrahim also rarely goes down on first contact and has perfected the art of falling forward, enabling him to pick up extra yards even after he has already gashed the opposing defense. He is the engine that drives this Minnesota offense.
TNIAAM: Tanner Morgan’s been injured, which means redshirt freshman Athan Kaliakmanis has played the last few games. Who’s starting at quarterback, and what can the Orange defense expect?
TDG: I expect Athan Kaliakmanis will be the starter. It sounds like Tanner Morgan may finally be healthy after suffering what appeared to be multiple concussions in the span of less than a month earlier this season, but Kaliakmanis has momentum on his side after starting the final three games of the season. His breakout game came in the regular season finale against Wisconsin, a game that saw him throw for 319 yards and two touchdowns against a very good Badger defense. Kaliakmanis was tabbed the Gophers’ quarterback of the future as soon as he arrived on campus, and Morgan’s injury ushered in the Kaliakmanis era earlier than most expected. He has the arm to make throws all over the field, in addition to the ability to escape the pocket and extend plays with his legs. Even as a redshirt freshman, Kaliakmanis has been good about limiting his mistakes. His only real bad habit this season has been looking for a home run throw when a single or double will move the chains.
TNIAAM: Minnesota’s pass defense has been stellar all season led by Tyler Nubin and Justin Walley. What’s been key to the Gopher pass defense?
TDG: It’s a veteran secondary. Cornerback Terell Smith is a fifth-year senior, strong safety Jordan Howden is in his fifth year as a starter, and free safety Tyler Nubin is in his third year as a starter. Cornerback Justin Walley, a sophomore, is the baby of the group, but he plays beyond his years and has a short memory that prevents him from getting rattled by the occasional mistake. It’s a very disciplined group that understands their assignments. Nubin is the field general, and the coaching staff trusts him to roam freely in the defensive backfield and essentially play center field. They also rarely allow opposing offenses to create explosive plays in the passing game, making great effort to keep everything in front of them.
TNIAAM: Who’s an unsung hero on both sides of the ball that could make an impact for the Gophers in New York?
TDG: Tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford has been Kaliakmanis’s safety valve in the passing game, and I expect he’ll be heavily involved in keeping the Orange defense honest as they undoubtedly try to slow the Gophers’ ground game. Defensively, Cody Lindenberg has really come into his own since taking over as the starting will linebacker midway through the season. He can play sideline to sideline and will likely be all over the field making his presence known against Syracuse.
TNIAAM: Side note, are you looking forward to going to California for conference games? How are you guys feeling with USC and UCLA joining the Big Ten in two years?
TDG: It’s very weird, to be honest with you. I’m a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to college football, so I can’t say I’ve been thrilled with all of the conference realignment. Whether it’s USC and UCLA joining the Big Ten or Texas and Oklahoma jumping ship for the SEC, it feels like we’re losing part of what made college football special in the first place. I’ll be very curious to see what the sport looks like 10 years from now. But I will say I’m looking forward to when USC and UCLA get their first taste of November football in the Midwest. It’s going to be a glorious welcome to the Big Ten for those two Sunshine State squads.
TNIAAM: Prediction time. Who’s taking home the hardware in the Bronx?
TDG: Well the Gophers are 3-0 in bowl games under P.J. Fleck. But I’m also aware that Syracuse is 2-0 in the Pinstripe Bowl. Something’s gotta give, and I think it’s the Orange who will see their unblemished bowl record fall. I have Minnesota avenging their 2013 Texas Bowl loss with a 24-17 win over Syracuse. I think it will be a close game for four quarters, but Mohamed Ibrahim will put the Gophers on his back and carry the team to victory.
Big thanks to Blake Ruane from The Daily Gopher again for taking some time to answer our questions on Minnesota. We answered some of their burning questions on the Orange over on their site as well. Check back here on this article when it goes live.