The Gophers trailed Georgia Southern by four points Saturday and faced third-and-29 from their own 6-yard line with under four minutes to play.
Tanner Morgan threw the ball. But the target wasn’t All-Big Ten receiver Tyler Johnson, who had already scored two touchdowns. It wasn’t sophomore Rashod Bateman, whose one-handed, 42-yard TD catch was the highlight of the season opener against South Dakota State. And it wasn’t redshirt sophomore Chris Autman-Bell, who miraculously kept one foot in the end zone on a reception that forced overtime last week at Fresno State.
Redshirt sophomore Demetrius Douglas hauled in the 21-yard pass, following it up with a 10-yard catch on fourth down to extend the Gophers’ drive and hopes for a third consecutive improbable victory.
Nine plays later, Johnson’s third touchdown catch of the day with 13 seconds left stole the spotlight as the game-winner in a 35-32 victory. But if these first three games have proven anything for the Gophers — besides the fact they have had luck on their side to be 3-0 amid glaring mistakes — it’s that their wide receivers are the MVPs.
Even Morgan said the receivers make him look good. Like on that final pass to Johnson, he admitted he underthrew the ball just a bit. Johnson adjusted. Minnesota won.
As long as he throws it somewhere in their zip code, Morgan said, the receivers will catch it.
“We’re really deep there,” the redshirt sophomore quarterback said. “Just guys that are confident in themselves and that we’re confident in. And it’s a tribute to how hard they work in the offseason. And how hard they push each other. That’s a really close unit. The wide receivers are really close to each other.”
Morgan said that all starts with Johnson as the senior leader. Double-coverage limited his impact in the first two games, but he made Georgia Southern regret giving him one-on-one matchups by going for 140 yards on 10 catches. The Gophers finished with 289 receiving yards against the Eagles, with Johnson, Bateman, Autman-Bell and Douglas each totaling 40 or more receiving yards.
“It means a lot. It says a lot to me, at least,” Johnson said of different receivers stepping up in each game. “We’re going out there every day, finding something to get better at. And over time, we’ve just been finding the small things. And when our number’s called, that’s when we go out there and make plays.”
Against South Dakota State, Bateman led the way with 132 yards on five catches plus his score. He also made seven catches for 105 yards and a touchdown at Fresno State. But seeing a younger player assume the spotlight didn’t bother Johnson.
“I really didn’t care about it at all because I felt like, the [defense] is out there bracketing me, that means somebody else is wide open,” he said. “So we took it as an advantage, really.”
Autman-Bell has shared his frustration playing behind standout players such as Johnson and Bateman, but he was also the first to credit his teammates with continuing to encourage him after he made his game-changing play at Fresno State. He called Johnson “one of the most selfless” people he’s ever known.
“Coming off like a year like that, like he had last year and getting doubled off the bat,” said Autman-Bell, talking about Johnson’s single-season school records for receiving yards (1,169) and touchdowns (12) last year. “And he’s just letting us work for him and help him out.”
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck will need his receivers to continue carrying the load. The running game hasn’t quite dominated despite having stars such as redshirt senior Rodney Smith and redshirt sophomore Mohamed Ibrahim. Both missed time against Georgia Southern because of injuries, as did true freshman Cam Wiley. Redshirt senior Shannon Brooks has yet to return from a knee injury. An inexperienced offensive line also has struggled to consistently open running lanes.
But the receivers are taking a cue from the backfield when it comes to playing physically.
“We have preached, stressed, educated our wideouts of running harder,” Fleck said. “… We have to be able to run more physical. And they’re physical players. But saying and doing it are two different things. And I thought Tyler played way more physical [Saturday].”
And even if their style on the field lags at any time this season, they still have their off-field fashion sense to carry them.
“Best-dressed room on the team,” Morgan dubbed them.