On one East Lansing night in 2013, two things began - the greatest era in modern Michigan State football history, and the head coaching career of PJ Fleck. On August 30 of that year, the Spartans took care of business against Fleck’s Western Michigan team 26-13, but MSU’s struggling offense kept the Broncos in contention most of the evening. It was the beginning of a dismal season for Western, whose only win was by a single point against dreadful UMass.
Fleck’s career took off after that difficult year, leading WMU to a Cotton Bowl berth after an undefeated regular season in 2016. He parlayed that success into the Minnesota job, and Fleck has been rowing the boat in Minneapolis since 2017. Last year, the Gophers came to East Lansing and drubbed MSU in one of the lowlights of a down season for the Spartans. What will this year’s return to Minnesota look like? Let’s look at the Gophers:
The Season So Far
The Golden Gophers are 4-3 coming into this weekend’s ballgame, coming off a doozy of a win against Iowa for the coveted Floyd of Rosedale trophy. Taking down the Hawkeyes 12-10 after a controversial called back punt return from MSU nemesis Cooper DeJean had to feel good for Gopher nation, as it puts them in a good position in the race for the Big Ten West. They trail Wisconsin by one game, and play the Badgers on Thanksgiving weekend.
Outside of a heartbreaking collapse against Northwestern in Evanston, Minnesota’s season has been pretty close to what was expected. On the opening Thursday night of the season, they showcased the soul of Big Ten West football in their 13-10 win over Nebraska. In non-conference play, the Gophers easily took care of a down Eastern Michigan team 25-6, lost decisively in Chapel Hill to a top 20 North Carolina squad, and played a competitive game against the Ragin’ Cajuns of Louisiana which they won 35-24.
In Big Ten play, things have been less smooth for the Gophers. After their win against Nebraska and a pair of non conference games, the collapse at Northwestern happened. After the Louisiana win, Minnesota hosted Michigan, who demolished Minnesota 52-10. It’s unclear which of Minnesota’s early matchups were witnessed by Connor Stalions or his henchmen.
After a bye, Minnesota won their annual rockfight with Iowa to take home the Floyd of Rosedale trophy.
Floyd of Rosedale is all that is right with college football: Two teams of grown men losing their minds over possession of a bronze pig ♥️ pic.twitter.com/hgGFiRbZZC— RedditCFB (@RedditCFB) October 21, 2023
Yes, RedditCFB, that is why we love this stupid sport.
Minnesota’s offense is a classic Big Ten West offense. They’ve topped out at 35 points against Louisiana, and have won division games against Nebraska and Iowa with 13 and 12 points scored respectively. It’s really unfortunate that such a fun division will be dead at the end of this season.
The Gophers’ offense is co-coordinated by Matt Simon and Greg Harbaugh Jr. Simon coaches the receivers while Harbaugh coaches the quarterbacks, both of them are replacing longtime Fleck assistant Kirk Ciarrocca after his move to Rutgers. Brian Callahan is listed as Minnesota’s run game coordinator, and he is the only member of the staff to have been with Fleck during the entirety of his time as a head coach.
At quarterback, Minnesota has a non-Tanner Morgan option as starter for the first time since 2017 when he redshirted. Athan Kaliakmanis is the starter, and the redshirt sophomore is working his way through an inconsistent first season as the starter. His stats are not particularly good, with 6 interceptions and 6 touchdowns on the year. His high water mark so far has been the opener against Nebraska, where he threw for 196 yards against the Cornhuskers. According to our interview with Blake Ruane from the Daily Gopher, the Gophers offense feels like a bit of a mess, with questionable mechanics from Kaliakmanis being exacerbated by questionable playcalling from Greg Harbaugh.
At running back, the uber-talented Mohamed Ibrahim has moved on, taking his injury curse to the NFL. Filling his void has been Darius Taylor, the freshman from Detroit. The Walled Lake Western grad has scored 4 touchdowns with 591 total rushing yards on the season. His primary backup is Sean Tyler, who transferred from Western Michigan. Tyler has roughly half the carries as Taylor, and works well as a change of pace back.
At receiver, Daniel Jackson is the clear leader in catches, yards, and touchdowns. The senior from Kansas City is just 8 catches short of his 2022 total, and he’s already matched his 2022 touchdown total. Corey Crooms has some explosiveness, but is definitely behind Jackson. Brevyn Spann-Ford is the primary tight end, but his production has fallen off a cliff from a very strong 2022. Darius Taylor has a handful of catches out of the backfield, but is primarily a rushing threat.
Joe Rossi is in his fourth year coordinating Minnesota’s defense. A prominent part of the regular Rutgers-Fleck coaching pipeline, Rossi has been with the Gophers since 2017 and focuses on coaching the linebackers. In a 2022 interview, he was quoted as saying “Guys play their best when they’re playing fast,” Rossi said. “If they can play fast and play with a clear mind, they’re going to play at their highest level.”
Maverick Baranowski leads the team in total tackles by a mile. The linebacker has 48 tackles, including a sack. Senior defensive lineman Danny Striggow leads the team in sacks with 4, already surpassing his 2022 total. Kyler Baugh and Jalen Logan-Redding are also forces in the pass rush.How
Senior DB Tyler Nubin leads the team in interceptions with 3, and Jack Henderson has added a pair against North Carolina and Louisiana.
How Worried Should We Be?
Let’s not worry, but let’s not pretend that MSU should be expected to win. There’s going to be a whole lot of mediocrity on the field Saturday afternoon. Neither team is particularly good, but Minnesota still has plenty to play for with a clear path to the Big Ten West title. MSU? A bowl game is basically out of the picture at this point, barring a near impossible upset against Penn State or Ohio State. The Spartans’ motivation will be fascinating coming off the remarkable embarrassment of the Michigan game, which has been luckily swallowed up by the separate Connor Stalions and Matt Weiss scandals in Ann Arbor.
Minnesota is a touchdown favorite according to the oddsmakers, and that feels pretty true to reality. If the returning Simeon Barrow and the rest of the MSU defense can make Kaliakmanis uncomfortable and force him into mistakes, then maybe it can be interesting. Expect a tight one in Minneapolis if MSU’s heads are in the game.