One-fourth of the Gophers football season has played out, and a few trends on offense have emerged.
- Behind a deep, physical offensive line and a stable of running backs, the Gophers will run the ball as their identity, even without reigning Big Ten Running Back of the Year Mohamed Ibrahim, who was lost for the season in the opener. Minnesota has run the ball 149 times and passed it 59 times.
- The tight end position, though not featured in the passing game like, say, the Kansas City Chiefs feature Travis Kelce, is no longer just a third or fourth tackle. Footballs, at least occasionally, are finding their way to Gophers tight ends.
- It might be a stretch for quarterback Tanner Morgan to repeat that 3,253-yard, 30-touchdown pass performance of 2019. However, the fourth-year starter has been an efficient game manager, hasn't thrown an interception and should see an uptick in his productivity now that wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell has returned from a lower leg injury.
"We've been able to run the football to finish games and win games,'' coach P.J. Fleck said, "but at some point, we're not going to be able to do that.''
That would shift more of the burden to Morgan, who has completed 33 of 59 passes for 481 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. His passing yards per game (160.3) and completion percentage (56%) are down slightly from his career numbers (203.4 ypg, 62%). In 2019, Morgan had the luxury of throwing to two All-Big Ten wide receivers, Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman, who now are in the NFL. The QB averaged 250.2 passing yards per game and completed 66% of his throws on the way to an 11-2 record.
Against Colorado, Morgan went 11-for-17 for 164 yards. His most productive connections were a pair of third-down throws to Autman-Bell to gain 8 and 32 yards to move the chains; a 39-yard hookup with Dylan Wright to set up a TD; and a 33-yard pass to Autman-Bell that led to a field-goal attempt.
Fleck praised Morgan for a strong finish but pointed to two or three passes that should have connected. Morgan, his own worst critic, saw room to improve.
"For us in the passing game, we've just got to execute better, and that starts with me being able to give guys chances to make plays,'' Morgan said. "Our protection has been elite, guys have been getting open, and we've had flashes here and there.''
With Autman-Bell returning to the lineup, Morgan has his most productive weapon available again. The wideout caught a game-high four passes for 79 yards against Colorado. He was targeted two more times and drew a pass interference penalty that helped set up a third-quarter touchdown.
"It was awesome to get him back on the field Saturday and see him make a couple of big plays,'' Morgan said. "It's obviously huge.''
Huge is a way to describe the Gophers offensive line, and Fleck has leaned on it extensively this season, starting with the opener against Ohio State when he began the game with seven offensive linemen, a tight end and only one receiver.
"Ball control is really important to me — always has been,'' Fleck said Tuesday on his KFXN radio show. "Remember, I cut my teeth, and a lot of our staff did, in the Midwest. … That's what I think you have to do to win here and win consistently. We've got the right recruiting base for it. It's taking care of the ball, creating long drives. I'd love to score on one play, just like everybody else. Sometimes, it's not the most efficient way to win the game. You have to know your opponent, know yourself.''
For Morgan, that means the passing game might not be featured, but he knows it's still needed. In the meantime, he will even help that running game by pushing the pile on back-to-back plays as he did at Colorado.
"I don't really add much, but what I can add, I'll do my best,'' the 215-pounder said, laughing. "It's fun. It feels wrong to just stand there and watch everybody else work.''