The Gophers didn’t do everything perfectly in their 38-22 win over Northwestern on Saturday in Evanston, Ill., but that shows just how great this club is, and how far the Gophers have exceeded expectations, that a 16-point road win in the Big Ten is considered normal.
For the first time since 2003, the Gophers are 10-game winners. Their seven Big Ten Conference victories are the most in school history — and they have a real shot to still play three more games this season.
“It’s quite an accomplishment when everyone picked you [to finish] sixth,” head coach P.J. Fleck said after the game.
Yes, the fact is that his club is still in the driver’s seat to win the Big Ten West, and a shot at the national title remains a real possibility for the Gophers.
What this team has done is incredible.
Once again, it was the offense that set the tone for the Gophers.
Tanner Morgan finished 15-for-23 for 211 yards with four touchdowns and one interception — his first since Oct. 26 vs. Maryland — after clearing the concussion protocol and getting to start. And you think that if Morgan doesn’t play in this game, the outcome looks very different.
Fleck talked after the game about how Morgan was cleared to play.
“The good thing about things that happen with our player’s head, I have no control over [it],” he said. “Those are the best decisions because I don’t have to make that decision. It’s one of the only decisions as a head coach that you don’t have to make.
“He went through the protocol, it’s a broad word, it can last almost all week, there are certain tests he has to pass, whether that is written, computer tests, and then he has to be cleared to have a noncontact practice and a contact practice and then he is available to go.
“You have to give him a lot of credit. With the limited reps he had, to be able to play like he did ... that was pretty good.”
Morgan had a special day as he broke Adam Weber’s single-season touchdown record of 24 set in 2007. Morgan has 26 touchdowns.
And the running game was balanced, finishing with 212 yards, the fourth-highest total this season. The lead rusher was Rodney Smith with just 77 yards. Mohamed Ibrahim added 76, Shannon Brooks had 44, and Seth Green had one carry for 25 yards.
Bateman a super sophomore
But maybe the biggest performance came from Rashod Bateman, who continues to do unheard-of things for a sophomore receiver at the University of Minnesota.
He finished with seven receptions for 78 yards and three scores. Tyler Johnson also had seven receptions for 125 yards and a score, but Bateman’s early touchdowns helped the Gophers set the tone as they raced out to a 28-9 lead in the third quarter.
If there’s one big benefit for the Gophers coaching staff it’s that Johnson, who could have gone pro last season, stayed with the club. And on top of that, Bateman cannot go pro until after next season.
Bateman has 51 receptions for 1,023 yards and 10 scores this season.
Both he and Johnson now have more than 1,000 yards receiving, and both have a chance to break the single-season receiving mark of 1,169 yards that Johnson set last season.
“Rashod Bateman I think is one of the best receivers in the country,” Fleck said. “A finalist for the Biletnikoff [Award, given to the best receiver in college football] and in my opinion I think he is the best receiver in the country. I think 1B could be Tyler Johnson — 1A, 1B they are together. However you want to put them together, they’re together ... We have two 1,000-yard receivers, and they both complement each other. Rashod Bateman, his best friend is Tyler Johnson. Tyler Johnson, his best friend is Rashod Bateman. If they didn’t have each other, it’s very easy to take one guy out of the game.”
Wisconsin will challenge
The fact is that this game was little in doubt heading into the fourth quarter, with the Gophers leading only 28-16.
And the Gophers are going to need to do more to stop the run next week against Wisconsin. They haven’t faced a running back all season like Jonathan Taylor, who has averaged 146.3 yards per game but last week rushed for 204 yards at Nebraska and the week before rushed for 250 yards against Iowa.
He’s the best running back in the Big Ten, and the Gophers will have to focus on stopping him to have any chance.
Beating Wisconsin has always been difficult for the Gophers, but this year could be different. They are coming off last season, when they shocked everyone and dominated the Badgers in Madison, and they are undefeated at home, outscoring opponents 220-113.
The only thing the Gophers have to worry about in terms of home-field advantage is a split crowd — unlike the Penn State game, there are going to be a lot of Wisconsin fans in TCF Bank Stadium.
• It may be that the Vikings’ only chance to win the NFC North is if they win every game the rest of the way. The Packers face just two tough teams in the 49ers on Sunday and at the Vikings in Week 16. But the Packers have a one-game lead and the tiebreaker based on their record within the division.
• Former Vikings assistant Pete Carroll took over as Seahawks head coach in 2010; since then Seattle is 5-0 against the Vikings, with three of those wins coming at home and two coming in Minnesota, including the 2016 playoff victory.
• Seahawks QB Russell Wilson is 4-0 against the Vikings with a 118.6 passer rating. He has thrown for 749 yards with eight touchdowns and one interception.
• Pro Football Focus says the Vikings’ main focus in the draft next year will be on interior defensive lineman. It notes that Linval Joseph, who recently had surgery, is having a down season by his standards.
• The Vikings have a number of key free agents next season, including: Everson Griffen, Trae Waynes, Anthony Harris, Dan Bailey, C.J. Ham, Jayron Kearse, Stephen Weatherly and Eric Wilson. Amazingly, the Vikings payroll for 2020 is already at $201 million, higher than their current payroll of $181 million.
• Vikings assistant head coach Gary Kubiak on Stefon Diggs putting up big numbers without Adam Thielen: “The fact that Adam’s been out and the way that Diggsy has played is even more credit to him. He has gotten doubled, you name it. People are trying to take him out of the football game.”
• The Vikings’ offensive line rankings after facing Denver, according to Pro Football Focus: Brian O’Neill (No. 20 in the NFL at tackle), Riley Reiff (No. 25 at tackle), Pat Elflein (No. 18 at guard), Josh Kline (No. 31 at guard) and Garrett Bradbury (No. 31 at center).