All Eyes on Tanner Morgan

Photo: @T_morg2 - Twitter

The Minnesota Gophers will take the football field tonight in Phoenix, AZ hoping for their 9th win of the season and a Guaranteed Rate Bowl victory over the West Virginia Mountaineers. It will be the last time we see Daniel Faalele, Boye Mafe, Ko Kieft, Jack Gibbens, Coney Durr, Blaise Andries and a host of others strap on their maroon and gold uniforms before having to move on from their youth like all of us are eventually forced to do. But Tanner Morgan won’t be one of those departures. Instead, Tanner will return to Dinkytown after Tuesday night’s game, where he’ll get ready for another spring semester and, eventually, football practice.

Morgan, along with teammates Mohamed Ibrahim, John Michael Schmitz and Chris Autman-Bell; announced a return for one last college football campaign in 2022. PJ Fleck fired offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr and re-hired Kirk Ciarrocca, who held that position until he left for Penn State in 2020. But the success next season will fall mostly on the shoulders of Tanner and whether or not he can return to anything that resembles what he showed in 2019 under Ciarrocca.

All Eyes on Tanner Morgan

That’s why all eyes will be on Tuesday in Phoenix will be on #2. Kirk Ciarrocca will not call plays nor will he be in the building vs West Virginia but the last time Matt Simon sat in as play caller for Morgan was 2 years ago (Jan 1, 2020) in the Outback Bowl vs Auburn. In that game, the Minnesota Gophers dominated the Tigers both from the ground and in the air.

Morgan went 19/29 for a modest 278 yards, 2 TD’s and 1 INT that day. His QBR was 88.7 and his NFL-style passer rating was 105.2. His 68.9 PFF grade, however, was one of his worst of that season. Only three times in 2019 did Morgan’s PFF grade drop under 68.9 and his final grade that year was 89.1, good for 14th best in the entire country.

On Tuesday night, however, Gopher fans would give arms and legs to have Morgan provide that same type of Auburn stat line vs West Virginia. Tanner’s 89.1 final PFF grade from 2019 feels like a dream that we can’t be sure happened. Even his final 2021 grade of 74.1 feels generous.

Mike Sanford’s Fault?

Many fans want to point their finger at former OC Mike Sanford, who directly oversaw Tanner Morgan’s 2-year decline from 2020 to 2022. And there is plenty of evidence, given his track record of doing the same thing to other quarterbacks, that Sanford was the biggest problem.

But that’s just another reason why all eyes will be on Morgan Tuesday night. It’s our first chance to see Tanner without Sanford’s shackles holding him back. Will he look like his old self? If not, will he look better than he has through 12 games this season? As fans, we have to hope so. Because success in 2022 depends on it.

Better Morgan or Bust

After Morgan announced he was returning, two of his most-likely replacements entered the transfer portal. Zack Annexstad beat Tanner out once for the starting job and was on his way to doing it again, until suffering a season-ending leg injury before the 2019 season began. He’s gone. Jacob Clark was once seen as the bridge QB between the Morgan/Annexstad era into the Athan Kaliakmanis era. He’s now gone too.

There won’t be a bridge between Morgan and Kaliakmanis now. Tanner will eventually hand the QB reigns directly to Athan, who will be in his 3rd year by the time Morgan is no longer in the room. If that happens during the 2022 season, it’ll be due to injury or non-satisfactory results.

So tonight, all eyes will be on Tanner Morgan. And they will all be looking for the same thing. He needs to show us that it’s possible 2019 wasn’t a fluke and that he was the best quarterback option for the 2022 Minnesota Gophers.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan