Saturday is About Tanner Morgan vs Mike Sanford

Morgan Photo: Abbie Parr (AP) | Sanford Photo: Renee Jones Schneider (Star Tribune)

The Minnesota Gophers are 28-point favorites at home vs the Colorado Buffaloes, on Saturday afternoon (2:30 PM). A spread they haven’t been on the right side of vs Power-5 competition since 2019. In fact, Minnesota played 19 total football games during the 2020 (7) and 2021 (12) seasons and went in as >28-point favorites just once.

It was vs Bowling Green (2021), a group-of-5 school. The Gophers entered as 30.5 point favorites and lost 14-10. The non-conference blunder — paired with an embarrassing 14-6 loss vs Illinois that cost them the Big Ten West — ruined an otherwise successful season. The reoccurring issue wasn’t a mystery. The Minnesota Gophers couldn’t throw the ball.

Remember 2019 Tanner Morgan?

A once-promising NFL prospect, Tanner Morgan fell off the Big Ten QB cliff. He went from 2nd-Team All Big Ten in 2019, to being talked about in the same conversations as Graham Mertz and Spencer Petras. Oh, you have forgotten how good Morgan once looked?

Head over to the single-season U of M passing record book. As a Sophomore in 2019, Tanner set the single-season school records for yards (3,253), touchdowns (30), completion percentage (66%), TD/INT ratio (4.28 | 30 TD / 7 INT). He was a third round QB, and rising, in many “future” draft classes.

But after Kirk Ciarrocca left for Penn State, and Mike Sanford began his Gophers OC tenure, Tanner Morgan became a shell of his 2019 self. He looked jumpy and nervous in the pocket. Many times, Tanner looked downright confused. Morgan’s statistical comparisons, under Ciarrocca vs Sanford, paint a vivid picture of his downfall.

The statistical downfall of Tanner Morgan under Mike Sanford

In 2020, the Gophers played just seven games. So, Morgan’s 1,374 total passing yards that season can be deceiving. But his yards per attempt and adjusted yards per attempt went sour, too. Tanner’s 10.2 Y/A and 11.1 AY/A in 2019 fell all the way to 7.5 and 7.0 in 2020. A nearly impossible decline.

Morgan’s play under Sanford didn’t get much better in year two, even with a full offseason of working together. After throwing for a record-breaking 30 touchdowns in 2019 (13 games), alone, Morgan threw for just 17 total touchdowns during two seasons (19 games) under Mike Sanford’s tutelage.

So when the 2021 season came to an end, all of the questions surrounded the Minnesota Gophers football team centered around two people. Tanner Morgan, and the offensive coordinator who supervised his decline, Mike Sanford.

Fixing the passing problem

Was PJ Fleck going to fire Sanford? Would Tanner use his 6th season of eligibility to return and, if so, would there be a quarterback competition? The answers to those questions came quickly. Yes, yes and no.

Mike Sanford was fired on November 29, right after the 2021 regular season came to an end, and before the Minnesota Gophers started preparation for their bowl game vs West Virginia. Morgan announced his return for a 6th and final year, soon after. And by the time their bowl game was played on December 28, we knew the 2022 starting job was Tanner’s and that he’d be reunited with Kirk Ciarrocca, who had been rehired as Minnesota’s OC.

So, here we are…

Fast forward to tomorrow. Through two games (vs bad opponents) under Ciarrocca, Tanner Morgan has flourished. The Gophers, once again, look as explosive offensively as they’ve ever been under Fleck.

Mike Sanford was hired by Colorado, as offensive coordinator. Converse to Minnesota’s early success in 2022, Sanford’s start in Boulder has been rocky. The Buffaloes have mustered just 23 points through two games, leading to losses vs TCU (38-13) and @ Air Force (41-10).

The Athletic’s Stewart Mandel is calling Colorado the worst Power-5 team in all of college football, and part of that has to do with what looks like a brutal OC hire, in Mike Sanford.

I was high on Minnesota entering the season, but I’m not sure we’ve learned a thing about the Gophers yet after blowouts of New Mexico State and Western Illinois, and even this week’s step up may be fairly useless because Colorado is my early leader for worst Power 5 team in the country. Stewart Mandel (The Athletic)

Climbing out of Sanford hole starts with a glow up vs Sanford

So, Saturday’s game isn’t about the Minnesota Gophers vs Colorado Buffaloes. Because the contest, itself, shouldn’t really be a contest. Instead, the Gophers need to prove themselves as worthy Big Ten West favorites.

To do that, Minnesota needs to prove that Tanner Morgan can revert back to the QB we saw in 2019. So far, so good. Through two games, he’s posted 461 yards on 73% completion and 12.5 Y/A, easily looking like the best QB in the division, behind Purdue’s Aiden O’Connell.

But those numbers were posted vs FCS (Western Illinois) and bad group of 5 (New Mexico State) competition. As mentioned, Colorado isn’t a good P5 football program. They are, however, a P5 football program. That means P5 talent and P5 size.

So, this is an important step for Morgan and the Gophers offense. We need to see, again, the poised/confident version of Tanner Morgan. The same guy who has been IMA for two seasons. It’s an opportunity to show everybody watching that he wasn’t the problem, during the Sanford tenure.

Because this is the final preseason test that new/old Tanner Morgan and the 2022 Minnesota Gophers will get. Next week, the 30-point favorite games are done, when the Gophers hit the road to play (#11) Michigan State, in East Lansing.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan

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