Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck issued a challenge to his offensive staff in the offseason. He changed his team's definition of explosive plays, increasing the yardage needed to gain from 20 yards to 25 in order to fall into that category.
"You talk about it in the summer, and we met as a staff on it. 'You can get 25 yards. That's easy,'" said Greg Harbaugh Jr., co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. "It's not that easy."
Harbaugh, the team's primary play-caller, knows that all too well.
Through three games, according to the website cfbstats.com, the Gophers and Sam Houston State are the only two of 132 FBS teams without a gain of 30 yards or more. Minnesota has 40 plays that have gained 10 yards or more, and 10 plays of 20 yards or more.
There are several reasons for the low output, and most point to the passing game. While the Gophers appear to have found their go-to running back in true freshman Darius Taylor, who has back-to-back games of 193 and 138 rushing yards, the passing game and quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis have yet to hit their stride.
The Gophers have scored four touchdowns through three games, and one was via the pass — Daniel Jackson's spectacular catch against Nebraska. They are averaging 148.7 passing yards per game, which ranks 122nd nationally, and 5.0 yards per attempt, which is 129th.
For that to change, Harbaugh offered a succinct list of what must happen.
"Execute better under the pressure of the situation," he said. "Can't let the moment get to big for us at certain times. Just continue to get better every day. It's all about development."
Tough day in Chapel Hill
The passing game's struggles were at the forefront of the Gophers' 31-13 loss at North Carolina on Saturday. Instead of generating explosive plays, the Gophers had moments of implosion. Kaliakmanis completed 11 of 29 passes for 133 yards with an interception, while Cole Kramer, in the game briefly for a cramping Kaliakmanis, threw an interception in the end zone with the Gophers at the Tar Heels' 34-yard line. The issues weren't all on Kaliakmanis because receivers dropped passes and slipped and fell on routes, but his accuracy was off.
"It just came down to me executing, and I failed to execute," said Kaliakmanis, who was hard on himself after the game.
During his KFXN-FM radio show Tuesday, Fleck praised Kaliakmanis for his response during practice and said the redshirt sophomore needs more game experience to improve. Kaliakmanis' high school junior season was cut short because of injury, and his senior season consisted of only six games because of COVID-19. Fleck has seen a quarterback who's been accurate in practice but has thrown behind targets in games.
"When you watch it in practice, he usually doesn't do that," Fleck said. "And that tells you that the game experience is everything. … There's times he's been accurate, and then he's been inconsistent. Well, that's part of getting better within the game."
To that end, Fleck had a heart-to-heart talk with Kaliakmanis to ease his mind.
"Coach Fleck took two hours out of his day after the game to talk to me individually about life and not even the game of football," Kaliakmanis said of a Sunday meeting. "And that was something that I really appreciated."
Quantity in hopes of quality
The development of the passing game and the chance to get more explosive plays hinges on passing more often. In the opener against Nebraska, the Gophers were pass-focused as Kaliakmanis completed 24 of 44 passes for 196 yards. Six times, he was called on for throws of 20 yards or longer, and he completed two of them. Against Eastern Michigan, the Gophers did not attempt a pass of 20 yards or longer. Against North Carolina, the Gophers had four passes of 20 yards or longer, with Kaliakmanis going 0-for-3 and Kramer throwing the interception.
"If you go back and watch the film, we are a foot off on most throws, a little bit behind them — four or five of those," Fleck said. "We miss a read, which is an explosive play. We were off by about a foot on another explosive throw. These are the small increments that cost you a game against a Top 20 team."
Over the past two seasons, the Gophers relied on the run for 67% of all offensive plays in 2022 and 70% in 2021. Fleck said he won't abandon the passing game, and to reinforce that, Harbaugh offered the evidence of his two passing calls in the first three plays after Kaliakmanis threw his interception against North Carolina.
"He'll get better as the year goes on," Fleck said of Kaliakmanis. "And you can see we're not like, 'Oh, we're not throwing that again.' Nope. I may have done that before. … We're committed to the strength [of the team] and changing how we do things — not just to do it, but because it's best for this football team."