QB1 Should Be Open Competition for 2022 Gophers

PHOTO: AARON LAVINSKY – STAR TRIBUNE

Tanner Morgan and the Minnesota Gophers will play against the Wisconsin Badgers for Paul Bunyan’s Axe on Saturday afternoon, a game that has suddenly become the championship of their 2021 campaign. To keep their Big Ten West hopes alive, Minnesota needed a Nebraska win over Iowa on Friday, which didn’t happen.

The Huskers held a 21-9 lead into the 4th quarter but the Scott Frost implosion, which has become as guaranteed as gravity, came fast and furious. When it was over, the Hawkeyes left Lincoln in 28-21 triumph and the Gophers’ Big Ten West hopes were dead.

Axe Still a BIG Deal

With the Big Ten championship game out of reach, Minnesota’s focus turns solely to Saturday’s rivalry game at Huntington Bank Stadium, where plenty remains on the line. Obviously, the Axe itself is a big fucking deal. Beating Wisconsin has become a rare feat in this state. The Gophers have come out victorious over Wisconsin only once in their last 17 matchups (3 of last 26).

No matter the year, Minnesota vs Wisconsin holds huge implications for how coaches in either town are judged. But there’s more on the line vs the Badgers than the Axe itself. Postseason bowl opportunities will blossom or wither based on how this weekend finishes all over the country.

An 8-4 Minnesota Gophers team with a victory over the Badgers looks way better to bowl committees than a 7-5 record lacking big wins. A schedule that includes losses vs Illinois and Bowling Green. No matter which way you slice it, Saturday is a big day for PJ Fleck and the Minnesota Gophers. But still, it could have been so much bigger.

Opportunity lost

Axe or no axe, it’s ok to disappointed. If you’re a realistic fan of the maroon and gold, you know your favorite football team left way too much meat on their 2021 bone. In retrospect, the Gophers were built to make a run in a very mediocre Big Ten West this season.

Northwestern, after winning the division in 2020, was on a down year. Both Wisconsin and Iowa forgot how to run any resemblance of an offense for much of the season. And on top of all that, the Gophers fixed their biggest problem of 2020, a defense that loved to give up massive plays and a lot of points.

The 2021 Gopher finished ranked 5th in the Big Ten in total defense (18.7 PPG allowed), 3rd in rush defense (103.6 YPG) and 3rd in pass defense (185.9 YPG). Fleck and his staff did a great job coaching up last year’s defenders. They also found the perfect transfer portal pickups to compliment them.

On offense, Minnesota has lost running backs to injury like a front porch loses flies to a bug zapper. Still, they’ve sustained the 3rd-ranked running attack in the conference (204.6 YPG). That, thanks to one of the deepest RB rooms in the country and an offensive line that’s bigger than many NFL o-lines and almost as old.

So what has held this Minnesota Gophers team back from grabbing a West division more in reach than ever?

Tanner Morgan

We know Tanner Morgan is one of the best people in all of college football. No matter the situation, you can count on Morgan to be calm, cool and collected. He’s the perfect role model and leader for any team, football or otherwise. Then the game starts, at which point not even PJ Fleck is willing to trust him in any tangible manner.

Fleck is quick to compliment his quarterback whenever a microphone is in front of his face but very rarely is he willing to put a football game on Tanner’s shoulders. That’s why the Minnesota Gophers stick so heavily to their run game and why they failed to climb over the underwhelming 2021 Big Ten West hump.

Your 5th-year senior quarterback throwing for just 1,736 yards, 9 touchdowns and 7 interceptions (58.8% completion) in 11 games isn’t good enough. Throwing less than one touchdown per game, which includes multiple matchups vs bad non-conference opponents, won’t get the job done in today’s power-5 college football.

More Tanner?

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, redshirt seniors like Tanner Morgan have the opportunity at 6th year of eligibility. Given what we’ve seen so far on social media, Morgan looks like he will return for that extra year of eligibility.

But no matter how the game turns out on Saturday vs the Wisconsin Badgers or the year turns out after bowl season, it’s time to open up the quarterback competition for 2022. Even if Tanner Morgan returns, it’s time to give a talented, and somewhat experienced backup QB group a chance.

Behind Tanner

There are a litany of QB options for PJ Fleck behind Tanner Morgan. They start with Zack Annexstad, who was on pace to beat Morgan out for QB1 in 2019 before being injured. But the talent goes much deeper.

We’ve seen the Eden Prairie native, Cole Kramer, throw a few passes out of the wildcat position already but he was recruited behind Texas native, Jacob Clark, who has a booming arm and a high school resume to live up to it. And even behind those three backups is the jewel QB recruit of the PJ Fleck tenure, Illinois native (and the only 4-star in the room), Athan Kaliakmanis.

Nothing guaranteed

Tanner Morgan holds some of the biggest single-season records in the University of Minnesota record books and his game experience cannot be simulated. It’s quite possible that, after another year of mourning the death of his father and another offseason of finding his game, Morgan wins a QB battle with the younger and less experienced talent behind him.

But it’s also possible that he doesn’t and that, instead, PJ Fleck finds his next “franchise” QB. One who won’t force him into overly conservative and “play not to lose” game plans. One thing has become clear over the last year. It’s time to find out.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan