Gophers head to Iowa with Tanner Morgan still at quarterback, but a very different offense than last time

The juxtaposition couldn’t have been much more striking.

Tanner Morgan stood behind a podium on Tuesday, answering questions about why the Gophers offense was so ineffective in a 14-6 loss to Illinois.

Two years earlier to the day, Morgan was taking questions about his tour de force performance in the Gophers’ signature win under coach P.J. Fleck, a 31-26 thriller over No. 5 Penn State that had fans storming the field. Morgan, then a redshirt sophomore, was brilliant in that game, completing 18 of 20 passes for 339 yards and three touchdowns.

That game wasn’t an outlier, either, for Morgan or the Gophers in 2019. He set a Big Ten completions record by going 21-for-22 at Purdue, and he finished with single-season school records of 3,253 yards, a completion rate of 66% and 30 TD passes.

How things have changed for the Gophers offense two years later.

Entering Saturday’s crucial game at No. 20 Iowa, the Gophers (6-3, 4-2 Big Ten) still control their destiny in terms of winning the Big Ten’s West Division — just as they did in their 2019 visit to Kinnick Stadium — but they’ve arrived in a much different way offensively.

The Gophers run the ball 70.3% of the time, compared with 63.4% two years ago. Their 175 passes attempted this season are ahead of only Air Force, Navy and Army — service academies that use old-school triple-option attacks.

The 2019 Gophers took more risks through the air and averaged 34.1 points per game, more than eight points better than this year’s average of 25.9.

“No matter what happens, whatever teams do to you, it all comes down to finding ways to tweak things and go execute,” Morgan said. “That all starts with me … finding ways to get the ball in guys’ hands. That’s something I have to be a lot better at.”

Not everything, of course, falls on the quarterback. In the 14-10 loss to Bowling Green and last week’s defeat against Illinois, Morgan was sacked four and six times, respectively, and the offensive line, normally a rock for Minnesota, had its two worst games of the season. The running game couldn’t get going against Illinois, and the play-calling didn’t have the answers in either loss.

Fleck admitted he coached the worst game in his Gophers tenure against Bowling Green and added after the Illinois loss, “We didn’t play well, and that falls on the head coach.”

Fleck has no plans to replace Morgan, saying “absolutely, that’s without question” the senior is his starting quarterback.

More offensive productivity all around but especially in the passing game will be a necessity against Iowa, which has the nation’s seventh-best run defense (98.7 yards per game), and on Nov. 27 vs. Wisconsin, which is best in the land vs. the run (54.7). How the Gophers fare against those rivals will determine their division fate.

Big losses from 2019

What’s changed from 2019? Personnel, both on the field and in the booth; health; and offensive approach.

Two years ago, Morgan had a pair of future NFL receivers as his targets. Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman combined to catch 146 passes for 2,537 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2019, and both were first-team All-Big Ten selections.

Also gone from the 2019 team is offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Kirk Ciarrocca, a longtime Fleck confidant who left to take the offensive coordinator job at Penn State and now is an offensive analyst at West Virginia. Under Ciarrocca, Morgan posted a 15-4 record as a starter.

Mike Sanford Jr., who coordinated offenses at Boise State, Notre Dame and Utah State, was hired by Fleck to replace Ciarrocca as co-coordinator and QB coach, splitting duties with Matt Simon, who also coaches the wide receivers. Sanford is the primary play-caller.

The Gophers went 3-4 in 2020, running the ball 61.9% of the time. This year, that number has surpassed 70%, with Sanford often using a seven-man offensive line. The run-first approach has worked well for the most part, with six games of 30 or more points and a pair of 300-plus-yard rushing games. Problem is, the offensive line had those two subpar games, the Gophers fell behind and were forced to pass, and Morgan threw two interceptions in each game.

“We have to respond better, and there’s been a formula for us to win football games,” Sanford said. “And offensively, I don’t believe that we played up to that formula.”

Could that run-heavy formula be stunting the passing game’s growth? Fleck isn’t about to abandon the run, but he stressed the need for balance.

“We had to be able to throw the football to win that [Illinois] game,” he said. “We were able to put a drive together in the 2-minute drill and come down the field and score. But we just couldn’t get enough traction with the running game to get the play-action game going, and we didn’t protect well enough.”

Health issues continue

Compounding the issues this year have been the team’s health at running back and wide receiver. Starting with Mohamed Ibrahim’s season-ending torn Achilles’ tendon in the opener, the Gophers lost their top three running backs to injury. That puts the onus on freshmen Ky Thomas and Mar’Keise Irving, who both had two 100-yard games before being shut down by Illinois.

At receiver, Chris Autman-Bell missed the first two games and most of the loss to Bowling Green. A hard hit put him in the injury tent in the third quarter vs. Illinois, though Fleck said he expects Autman-Bell to play Saturday. Other wideouts have been in and out of the lineup, too.

To Morgan, those obstacles can be overcome simply by executing the offense better, starting at Iowa.

“You can’t sit and wallow in self-pity,” he said. “You just have to go respond.”

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