MINNEAPOLIS (FOX 9) - The 2023 season for the University of Minnesota football team will go down as one of major disappointment and multiple missed opportunities, with the Big Ten West there for the taking.
The Gophers’ regular season came to an end Saturday in a 28-14 loss to Wisconsin on Senior Day at Huntington Bank Stadium. Minnesota finishes 5-7 overall, under .500 in a full 12-game slate for the first time since P.J. Fleck’s first season in 2017. They finish 3-6 in Big Ten play, Paul Bunyan’s Axe goes back to Madison and now they wait to find out if their APR score is enough to get them to a bowl game. It would be their fifth in seven years under Fleck.
"We’ll always accept a bowl bid. This is why it’s a life program, when you get put in positions like this, the APR matters," Fleck said after the loss. "Your academic progress rate matters, we’re a life program and the academics will always matter here. That could give you an opportunity to get another bowl game, we’d be honored."
The Gophers had a 14-7 lead on the Badgers in the second quarter after touchdowns from Jordan Nubin and Daniel Jackson, but Wisconsin pulled away with 21 unanswered points. As it has been for the second half of the season, the Gophers’ defense was a major issue in Saturday’s loss. They had no answer for Braelon Allen, who had 195 total yards, 168 on the ground, and a pair of touchdowns. Tanner Mordecai was 14-of-22 passing for 145 yards and touchdowns to Will Pauling and Riley Nowakowski.
The Gophers gave up 412 total yards, 267 on the ground after giving up more than 600 at Purdue earlier this season, and 434 at Ohio State last week. They lost players due to injuries, they missed tackles. Linebacker Cody Lindenberg, who returned from an injury-plagued season, talked through tears during his post game media session and was devastated he couldn't send the seniors out with a rivalry win.
"Losing hurts no matter what, these ones hurt a little bit more. Especially the seniors, you want to do it for them. Hopefully we get a bowl game, it’s not guaranteed. Hopefully it’s not the last time we get to play with them anymore," Lindenberg said. "They’ve all meant so much to the program. Those guys built it, just wish we could’ve sent them out a little better."
Offensively, Athan Kaliakmanis was 16-of-28 for 167 yards and a touchdown to Daniel Jackson. Nubin had 24 carries for 93 yards and a score, but the Gophers were just 5-of-13 on third down on the day.
With the game tied 14-14 at half, Allen made four Gophers’ defenders miss on a 50-yard run in the third quarter, then scored on the next play to give Wisconsin a 21-14 lead. Mordecai hit Nowakowski for a score from five yards out to give the Badgers a 28-14 lead with 10 seconds left in the third.
After scoring on their opening drive, the Gophers punted three straight times. Minnesota’s second half featured two punts, a turnover on downs, Jackson losing a fumble and Kaliakmanis having a pass intercepted. Too much inconsistency.
"That’s kind of the story of the year. That’s my responsibility to get that fixed. I’ve kind of named it the readjustment year. There’s a lot of things to adjust moving forward, a lot of things to evaluate but there’s a lot of things outside our control. 5-7 is a dip, we’re this far away all year, that’s why it’s a readjustment year," Fleck said. "If it’s this far this way, we have a completely different season. It just needs to be readjusted, that takes a lot of work to get it that way."
We don’t yet know what the 2024 roster will look like under Fleck, but 17 players walked on Senior Day at Huntington Bank Stadium. Now, we wait to find out if the Gophers will go to a bowl game. Minnesota's regular season ends on a four-game losing streak. A season with high expectations and hopes of winning the West came far short.
"Result aside of this year, how it played out, I wouldn’t play for any other program but this one. I wouldn’t fight with any other teammates and players than my brothers. I don’t have any regrets," said safety Tyler Nubin, who set a program record Saturday with his 13th career interception. "Obviously it wasn’t the result that we wanted for this season, but I’m glad I came back."
Players emphasized after the loss they're going to remember the relationships and friendships they've built, rather than the on-field results.
"I’m super thankful to have all the guys in that locker room. It was never a preparation problem for us or getting guys that wanted to be out there. At the end of the day, sometimes the ball is just not going to bounce your way regardless how hard you work," tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford said.