Gopher Defense Finishes What Tanner Morgan Started vs Nebraska

PHOTO: SHARI L. GROSS – STAR TRIBUNE

It was a beautiful fall morning in Dinkytown on Saturday. The perfect day for an 11 AM football game between two Big Ten West teams that badly needed victories. Entering the weekend, Scott Frost’s Nebraska Cornhuskers had struggled to finish games against the many ranked opponents on their 2021 schedule.

Meanwhile, PJ Fleck’s Minnesota Gophers entered trying to show the conference that whatever happened in their loss to FCS Bowling Green three weeks ago, was just a fluke. Oh, and that β€œsloganeering” works.

After Mohamed Ibrahim won the coin toss, making him 5-0 at midfield this season, a different Minnesota offense took the field than what we’ve seen so far this year. Trey Potts joined Mo on the season-ending injury list after a freak injury vs Purdue landed him in an Indiana hospital for much of the bye week.

So without their top two running backs, PJ Fleck and Mike Sanford turned to their 5th-year quarterback, Tanner Morgan, hoping he could throw them to victory against the Huskers.

Different Half, Different Tanner

In the first half, Tanner rewarded the offensive aggressiveness by tossing the ball around like a Heisman candidate, completing 93% of his passes for 171 yards and 2 touchdowns. Both TD’s were great throws and even better catches by Michael Brown-Stephens and, especially, Chris Autman-Bell. Minnesota entered half time with a 21-9 lead.

The Gophers looked ready to feed Morgan when they came out of the locker room for half two. Tanner, however, wasn’t the same guy that we saw for the first 30 minutes. After completing 15 of 16 passes in the first half, Tanner threw two-straight interceptions to start the second.

The latter of those two picks turned into a Nebraska touchdown that put the Gophers in serious trouble of losing the lead. But when one part of your team struggles, you need others to pick them up. That’s exactly what happened on Saturday. Morgan and a suddenly stagnant Minnesota offense punted four times in a row after his two second half picks.

After such a hot 1st half, Morgan and the offense were making a call to the bullpen. They needed help.

Defense saves victory

The Minnesota Gopher defense has been pretty good all season, especially against the run. But to win Saturday, PJ Fleck needed even more from that side of the field. And he got it.

While they did plenty of bending, the defense never broke. Nebraska racked up a respectable 377 yards of total offense, but that fell far short of the 493 yards they averaged entering the weekend (2nd in Big Ten). The difference was how Minnesota played QB Adrian Martinez, who led the Huskers in run and pass yards entering Saturday.

Martinez made some nice throws but was never able to get comfortable, completing just 55% of his passes. Part of his uneasiness in the pocket was his inability to run. The Husker leading rusher was held to -17 yards on the ground Saturday.

And when the Gophers really needed a big play from their defense, they got it. Multiple times. Most notably, they held up at the goal line on 4th down in the 3rd quarter, with the lead at risk. Then, they forced a safety in the 4th quarter to help put the game away.

Teammate stuff

Sanford, Morgan and the Minnesota offense may have built the lead needed for victory. But Joe Rossi, Mariano Sori-Marin and Co saved it in the second. People helping people. Beautiful stuff.

Now, (3-5) Nebraska will face Purdue before ending with one of the most difficult remaining schedules in the nation. The (4-2) Minnesota Gophers, on the other hand, will be favored in their next three games against Maryland, @ Northwestern and Illinois, before heading south to play the Big Ten West favorite, #2 Iowa Hawkeyes about a month from now.

Nothing is guaranteed in college football… except Scott Frost losing to PJ Fleck.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan