In the wake of the Gophers' fourth-quarter collapse in an overtime loss at Northwestern last week, coach P.J. Fleck knew he had to get his players' minds in the right place. Instead of a typical practice last Sunday, Fleck and his players spent the time talking things out to soothe the pain.
"You could tell they hurt, and why they hurt is because they care a ton," Fleck said. "They care about each other. They care about this university. They care about this football team and care about the state. They care about what just slipped through their hands last week."
On Saturday, the Gophers earned their emotional rescue by putting together a dominant second half to pull away for a 35-24 victory over Louisiana on Homecoming in front of an announced 46,843 at Huntington Bank Stadium. Not everything was perfect, and Minnesota did trail the Ragin' Cajuns 17-14 at halftime, but the Gophers (3-2) avoided falling into a three-game skid with second-ranked Michigan coming to town next week.
"We were able to just take a deep breath and focus on what we had to do," said Gophers quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis, who completed 12 of 14 passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns to Daniel Jackson and rushed for a score. "… I'm just so proud of the guys and the way we finished the game."
The Gophers, with true freshman running back Darius Taylor out because of a leg injury, got 201 rushing yards on 51 carries from a backfield-by-committee. Leading the group was redshirt freshman Zach Evans, who rushed 15 times for 85 yards and a touchdown, and senior Bryce Williams, who had 15 carries for 53 yards and a score.
It was the Minnesota defense, though, that made the biggest strides from last week.
Tyler Nubin and Jack Henderson each intercepted a pass that led to a second-half touchdown. The Gophers added a fourth-down stop and allowed the Ragin' Cajuns to convert only one of five third-down opportunities after intermission. Louisiana quarterback Zeon Chriss rushed for only 7 of his 74 yards in the second half.
"When this guy gets a chance to step up in the pocket, he is deadly," Fleck said of Chriss, who had 246 yards of total offense. "He is a fantastic quarterback. There are teams in our league that would take him tomorrow."
Chriss staked the Ragin' Cajuns (3-2) to the three-point halftime lead with an opening-drive 7-yard TD pass to Peter LeBlanc, a 64-yard drive for a field goal and a 6-yard TD hookup with Robert Williams with 1:47 left in the second quarter.
In between, Kaliakmanis hit Jackson for a 10-yard TD and gave his team a 14-10 lead with a 2-yard Philadelphia Eagles-style "Brotherly Shove'' keeper that the Gophers used six times Saturday.
"That's a great play, ain't it?" Kaliakmanis asked.
The second half featured the type of complementary football between Minnesota's offense and defense that Fleck banks on as the Gophers had the ball for 21 minutes, 20 seconds.
They drove 80 yards to open the third quarter and took a 21-17 lead on Evans' 18-yard TD run. The defense followed with a fourth-down stop of Chriss by Henderson and Anthony Smith, but the offense couldn't cash in.
No matter. Nubin made his diving interception, and nine plays later the Gophers led 28-17 on Williams' 2-yard TD run. With 9:47 left, Henderson picked off a Chriss pass, and the Gophers converted that to seven points when Kaliakmanis' play-action fake on fourth-and-2 got the Ragin' Cajuns to bite, leaving Jackson alone down the middle for a 37-yard TD reception and 35-17 lead.
"It was about ending the game. Period," Fleck said of the play call.
Although Louisiana got a late 52-yard TD run by Jacob Kibodi to make it 35-24 with 3:01 to play, the Gophers left the stadium with what they needed — a victory first, but one from which they could take away some good feelings.
The Gophers still have the meatiest part of their schedule upcoming, with not only Michigan visiting next Saturday, but also a trip to No. 4 Ohio State and rivalry games against Iowa and Wisconsin. They were tested against Louisiana but showed enough resilience to steady themselves.
"At the end of the day, probably the best thing was to test the football team to see what we were going to do when it did not go so well," Fleck said. "And I thought they responded very well."