The Gophers offense was looking for a certain coverage from Michigan State’s defense before Minnesota dialed up one specific pass play at Huntington Bank Stadium on Oct. 28.
Coordinator Greg Harbaugh called the play at the end of the first half, even if the circumstances weren’t ideal, and stuck with it on a key third down when trailing 6-3. The Spartans played man coverage underneath, with one deep safety.
Receiver Daniel Jackson gave a stutter-step move coming off the line of scrimmage and the quick burst out of it created separation from the cornerback; Athan Kaliakmanis found Jackson open in the middle of the field and front of the safety for 22-yard touchdown and a 10-6 halftime lead.
“At this point, it was just, ‘Screw it,’ ” Jackson relayed about sticking with the play postgame. As Jackson said that, to his left, Kaliakmanis briefly chortled and smiled.
Kaliakmanis and Jackson have established great chemistry this season; they will need many positive results on some grand experiments when the four-touchdown underdog Gophers (5-5, 3-4 Big Ten) play No. 2-ranked Ohio State (10-0, 7-0) at 3 p.m. CT Saturday at Ohio Stadium.
The Buckeyes have one of the best receivers in the nation in Marvin Harrison Jr., but the Gophers believe Jackson deserves a spot near Harrison on the all-Big Ten teams. The numbers back it up, and those honors will be voted on and announced after the regular season.
‘I think last year he was good receiver,” head coach P.J. Fleck said of Jackson in early November. “This year, I think he is a really great receiver.”
Jackson leads the Gophers in every key receiving category — receptions (45), yards (681) and touchdowns (seven). Each of those marks are in the top five on the conference leader board.
In three of the previous four games, Jackson has produced at least seven catches and 100-plus yards.
The Gophers have been plagued by drops from pass-catchers this season, which cost them at key moments in losses to Illinois and Purdue the past two weeks.
“Right now, we have not been consistent enough — maybe just around (Jackson) at times,” Fleck lamented. “If we are, we probably win a few more games.”
But Jackson has been their reliable go-to guy.
Against Michigan State, Gophers coaches let Kaliakmanis and Jackson do their thing.
“Sometimes, you have to let players play,” Harbaugh said a few weeks ago. “That is the cool thing about our guys; they are growing up. They are continuing to get better.”
Before their touchdown connection against the Spartans, Kaliakmanis was flushed out of the pocket and threw a jump ball to Jackson. It didn’t appeared to be smart throw lofted into coverage — until Jackson came down with it.
“I trust D-Jack so much,” Kaliakmanis said. “I think it meant a lot to do that. But like I said, I trust the guys around me. They are going to make plays. A couple of plays before that, I just throw the ball up and he goes up and gets it. He’s just one heck of a player.”
While Jackson is listed at 6-feet, Fleck added: “I think he plays as a really big receiver. He’s not the biggest guy. When you see him, he’s not 6-4, but he plays really big and can play really small when he needs to. He’s lightning-quick and explosive.”
Fleck pointed to Jackson’s maturity on and off the field as a key reason why he’s blossomed this fall. The Gophers have a saying: a smarter player is a better player. And Jackson has started to embody that.
“Daniel has really grown up as a man and as a person, and that is what you see on the field,” Fleck said. “I think the ability to play every position and do a lot of different things. I think he has really evolved his game.”
Jackson’s mother JaKyta Lawrie said she has seen Daniel’s maturity in how he now communicates with family members — which have also been important relationships for them.
“He’s just being more intentional with his communications and staying in touch with families, and just reminding us of how much he loves us and appreciates us,” Lawrie said Friday from Columbus, Ohio. “That’s really been a big step in his maturity and just growing into an adult and realizing all of his blessings.”
Now in his fourth season at the U, Jackson plays all the U’s receiver positions, from the slot and split wide. He’s also tasked with option routes based on what the defense is presenting to them.
“I think his understanding of defenses has been way better because he does run some option routes,” Fleck said. “Having a really good decisive decision when you are making those things is important. … He is running every route in the route tree, and he is doing it at a very high level.”
From the stands at every game, Lawrie has seen Jackson’s present himself in a different way on the field.
“I’m starting to see a little bit of his personality come out more on the field,” Lawrie told the Pioneer Press. “He’s not always been a very emotional kind of player, not very vocal, but he’s really coming from his own. And I can just see how he just really loves the game still, just like when he was a young boy.”
That might come in a release of emotion after a big catch or in his assertiveness in run blocking, Lawrie observes. (Jackson is also the U’s fifth-highest-graded run blocker, per Pro Football Focus.)
“Sometimes he’ll do a celebration; that’s not something that he’s just always done playing football the majority of his life,” Lawrie said. “I just see him being aggressive in his blocking and just holding his own.”
One of Jackson’s finest moments came with his toe-drag touchdown to help the Gophers beat Nebraska in the season opener in late August. Afterward, NFL Hall of Fame receiver Calvin Johnson reached out to Jackson on social media.
“That meant a lot to him,” Lawrie said. “He definitely wasn’t expecting that. But that game was very special. I think it really did something, just overall, for Daniel to have that type of exposure.”
Jackson aspires to play in the NFL, but his primary goal this season has been to play in every game. He’s on his way, playing in all 10 games so far. He missed two games apiece in the 2021 and 2022 seasons.
Jackson, who has one final year of eligibility for 2024, will make a decision about turning pro after the season, Lawrie said. Right now, he’s just enjoying the moment.
The indelible experience this year for Jackson and Co. came when 20 family members traveled from his home in Kansas City, Kansas, to Iowa City for the U’s game against the Hawkeyes in October.
Lawrie and husband Kenneth travel to every game, but for that occasion Lawrie rented a passenger van well in advance and they drove north and east for four hours and 30 minutes to see Jackson play.
The van was used to better accommodate elder family members, including Lawrie’s mother and Jackson’s grandmother, Janice Sullivan. The 76-year-old is coming off surgeries to her back and a knee earlier this year, but she was determined to see Jackson play college football in person for the first time.
As Jackson made seven receptions for 101 yards in the 12-10 win over Iowa, Sullivan kept saying: “He’s doing that for me because he’s knows I’m here watching!” Lawrie relayed. “Every run, every catch, it was: “I told my baby to do it for me! He’s doing it for his grandma!”
After the Gophers won the Floyd of Rosedale rivalry trophy, Jackson, still wearing his jersey, made his way into the stands to be with his family at Kinnick Stadium.
“He wanted to make sure we got pictures with everyone, that he gave everybody hugs and thanked them for coming out,” Lawrie said. “It was just a really special moment. It really was.”
Jacking it up
Daniel Jackson’s stats and his Big Ten rank in receiving categories this season:
45 receptions — 5th
681 receiving yards —3rd
7 touchdowns — tied for 3rd
15.1 average yards per catch — 4th
68.1 average yards per game — 3rd