Gophers Will Need Tanner Morgan Eventually

Photo: Kamaan Richards – MNDaily

The 2021 Minnesota Gophers offense has lost its RB1, Mohamed Ibrahim and RB2, Trey Potts to season-ending injuries. Fortunately for their chances at contending in the Big Ten West, running back was one of their deepest positions entering the year. But the Gophers now have just three running backs remaining on roster, after Cam Wiley entered the transfer portal last week.

But even with the ever depleting backfield, PJ Fleck has been reluctant to put his offense on the shoulders of 5th-year quarterback, Tanner Morgan. Instead, he’s opted to trust his remaining running backs, who have combined for 470 yards and 4 touchdowns in Minnesota’s last two wins over Maryland and Nebraska.

Maybe not this week… maybe not next week… but eventually…

There have been games this season where the Minnesota offense hasn’t needed Tanner Morgan. They’ve been able to dominate play on the ground, and when you’re running up and down teams like the Gophers did last Saturday vs the Terrapins, there’s really no good reason to do anything else.

Other times, however, Fleck has been too reluctant to put the ball in the hands of his veteran leader who he claims to trust so much. Like earlier this season in the worst loss of the head coach’s time in Minnesota. When they were upset at home against Bowling Green in week 4, Tanner Morgan finished 5/13 for just 89 passing yards and 2 interceptions. Dreadful.

If Tanner could have found ANY rhythm on ANY drive during the second half of that game, the Gophers probably win and they’re probably 6-1 instead of 5-2. Instead, Morgan threw both of his interceptions on the final two Minnesota drives, sealing the historic upset. Maybe there was a reason Fleck looked hesitant to give him too many opportunities that day.

If BGSU can do that to this Minnesota offense then so can Iowa and Wisconsin, who are both still on the schedule. At some point, Morgan will have no choice but to throw his team to a victory.

Can Tanner Do It?

Throughout his career in maroon and gold, Tanner Morgan has proven himself as someone who’s capable of being a future NFL draft pick. Hell, he set just about every single-season passing record in the University of Minnesota record books back in 2019, when he finished the season with 3,253 yards, 30 touchdowns and 7 interceptions on 66% passing. But back then, he had Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman on each side of him.

Even since, the Kentucky kid has shown flashes of his 2019 self. Just two weekends ago, Morgan went 14/15 for 171 yards and 2 touchdowns in the first half vs Nebraska. During that game, he got in a rhythm early and was tossing dimes all over Huntington Bank Stadium.

Then, he threw two early second half touchdowns and PJ Fleck quickly shut him down for the day. Tanner finished 20/24 for 204 yards, 2 TD and 2 INT.

In other words, we know Tanner Morgan has it in him. But we don’t know whether or not he can be consistent enough and neither does PJ Fleck. Can he tap into that guy vs Wisconsin or Iowa? Because he will absolutely need to play better if the Minnesota Gophers hope to find themselves representing the West in the Big Ten Championship game; something that’s still very much within reach.

No Better Time Than Now

Saturday afternoon in Evanston vs the Northwestern Wildcats would be a perfect time to find out what Tanner Morgan can do. Pat Fitzgerald’s team won the West last season but they’ve been a shell of themselves in 2021, ranking near the bottom of the Big Ten in just about every category.

The Wildcats have been especially bad against the run, surrendering 218.3 yards per game, easily worst in the conference. Illinois is 13th and they give up 150.5 YPG. Thus Pat Fitzgerald will expect PJ Fleck to run them to death on Saturday afternoon.

The Minnesota offense shouldn’t shy away from exploiting those stacked-box looks early. If Sanford can keep Northwestern guessing with a 50/50 early run/pass split (much like what we saw vs Nebraska), Tanner Morgan could get some very easy looks in the first half.

If he can find that early rhythm, the Minnesota Gophers could dispose of the Northwestern Wildcats before halftime and Morgan would gain some confidence going forward.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan