MINNEAPOLIS (FOX 9) - If the University of Minnesota football team doesn’t end up winning the Big Ten West Division this year, everyone will be looking back to losses at Northwestern, and this past Saturday against Illinois.
The Gophers took a 26-21 lead with 5:53 to play after Athan Kaliakmanis hit Daniel Jackson for a 31-yard touchdown. Illinois got the ball back on its own 16-yard line with 2:47 to play, and quarterback Luke Altmyer had to leave the game injured after being sacked by Danny Striggow. John Paddock’s first pass of the game went for 22 yards on 4th-and-11, keeping the Illini’s chances alive.
Two plays later, a rare catastrophic mistake from Joe Rossi’s defense. Top receiver Isaiah Williams got behind the Gophers’ secondary for a 46-yard game-winning touchdown with 50 seconds to play. Cody Lindenberg started in coverage, then let Williams free expecting help behind him. The problem is safeties Aidan Gousby and Tyler Nubin were cheating towards their boundaries. Williams got behind them both down the middle of the field. Touchdown, Illinois.
P.J. Fleck explained the play at his Monday news conference.
"One play, a breakdown in communication, shouldn’t happen. Can’t happen, I’ve got to do a better job coaching it, simple. It all falls on me anyway, but you can’t have that lack of communication where you think you have more support inside than you do, when you don’t," Fleck said. "That’s a communication piece, and that falls on the coaching staff."
ATHAN KALIAKMANIS HAS ONE BIG MISS
Athan Kaliakmanis finished 11-of-22 for 167 yards and three touchdowns – Jackson, Brevyn Spann-Ford and Elijah Spencer. He was 9-of-11 for 130 yards in the first half, then went just 2-for-11 in the second half. He had one costly incompletion that could’ve all but run the clock out for a Gophers’ win.
He had tight end Nick Kallerup open on a pop pass on 3rd-and-4 from the 45-yard line, but the throw sailed high and incomplete. The Gophers had to punt, setting up Illinois’ game-winning touchdown drive.
"The pop pass, I wouldn’t take that back for anything. It’s open. That’s one to go end the game. I said that we’re ‘this close.’ This team has been ‘this close.’ It’s those narrow games, these are the games you really learn from," Fleck said. "We still to this date nine games in have not played a complete, complimentary football game yet."
BIG MISSED OPPORTUNITY TO LEAD BIG TEN WEST
The loss was a massive missed opportunity for the Gophers to stay atop the Big Ten West. Northwestern, Wisconsin and Nebraska all lost Saturday. Iowa leads the West at 4-2. The Gophers are at 3-3 in the Big Ten, and it can be argued they should be 5-1, and 4-0 against the West Division. They beat Nebraska and Iowa, blew a three-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter at Northwestern and now Saturday’s loss to Illinois.
Things would look at lot different for Minnesota at 7-2, 5-1 as opposed to their current 5-4 overall mark, and 3-3 in league play.
"This team could be 3-6, it could be 7-2. We look at only the losses that should be wins, and I think that you’ve got to look at it as a whole piece when you’re a head football coach," Fleck said.
That said, the Gophers are not yet eliminated from earning a trip to Indianapolis. But that road got a lot more difficult after their 10th straight loss to Bret Bielema. Assuming Minnesota loses at No. 1-ranked Ohio State on Nov. 18, the Gophers need to win at Purdue on Saturday and against Wisconsin in the season finale.
They also need Iowa to lose two of their last three games – home against Rutgers, home against Illinois and at Nebraska on Black Friday. A scenario exists where Minnesota is tied with Iowa atop the West at 5-4, and the Gophers would have the head-to-head tiebreaker.
A path remains. But it disappears with a loss at Purdue.
"Absolutely, but we’re talking about one-game championship seasons. We were 0-1 in the Illinois season, period. We didn’t play well enough to win that football game," Fleck said. "I think our team has been incredibly resilient, that’s what came in the doors yesterday. I don’t know what this team’s record is going to be, but they’re really fun to coach."
If they don’t win the West, they can still win at least one of their final three games to earn a bowl eligibility.