EVANSTON, Ill. – The Gophers football team is making history, and P.J. Fleck can and will recite every statistical and historical milestone whether you ask him to or not. Tanner Morgan is making history, and he wouldn’t tell you about it even if he knew.
If the coach is a megaphone, the quarterback is a thank-you note. They seem as different as neon and mood lighting, yet together they’ve brought the Gophers to the cusp of a Big Ten West championship, an accomplishment previously thought to be the stuff of myth.
Asked Saturday about setting the Gophers’ record for touchdown passes in a season, Morgan looked blankly through his generic black-rimmed glasses until someone offered confirmation. “Oh,” Morgan said. “OK. Cool.”
Morgan had quite a week. He was injured during the loss against Iowa last weekend and placed into college football’s concussion protocol. He didn’t practice until Wednesday, and then he was limited.
No one in the Gophers party was willing to say exactly when he was cleared to play, but Morgan did indeed start on Saturday against Northwestern at Ryan Field, and threw four touchdown passes in the Gophers’ 38-22 victory that sets up a showdown for the Big Ten West with Wisconsin at TCF Bank Stadium.
As Fleck emphasized after the game, the Gophers haven’t won 10 regular-season games since 1905 and had never before won seven conference games in a season. They have two 1,000-yard receivers, a 1,000-yard rusher, and a quarterback who should know this:
Morgan’s 26 touchdown passes this season are a program record. He finished the game with 15 completions on 23 attempts for 211 yards, four touchdowns, one interception and one or two moments that tiptoed the line between gutsy and risky.
On the Gophers’ first drive, Morgan scrambled right, turned upfield and launched himself headfirst toward the goal line, winding up on the one.
That may not have been the best decision, but Morgan survived and helped the Gophers score touchdowns on their first three drives.
“The good thing about the things that happen with our players with their heads is, I have no control over them,” Fleck said.
Fleck would have had to play a true freshman quarterback in an important game if Morgan hadn’t been available. “You’ve got to give him a lot of credit,” Fleck said. “Because in the limited amount of reps he had, to be able to play like he did …
“You could tell there were some things he was a little off on today.”
Gopher standards are changing before our eyes. Morgan threw four touchdown passes and led the way to an easy victory on the road, and Fleck casually noted his mistakes.
“I felt fine, but I felt like there were definitely some throws that I missed, wish I could have back,” Morgan said.
Fleck, Morgan and the Gophers have created a remarkable November for anyone with enough historical awareness to realize that this program rarely creates big games, much less wins them.
On Nov. 9, the Gophers beat Penn State, then ranked No. 4. On Nov 16, they lost at No. 20 Iowa. On Nov. 23, they eased past Northwestern with a recently concussed quarterback. On Nov. 30, they will face Wisconsin at TCF Bank Stadium for the West title and a chance to play Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game.
If you like college football, this is as good as it gets in Minnesota in this century. If you didn’t like college football, this month might have changed your mind.
Receiver Rashod Bateman spoke of a meeting the players held in January, when they raised internal expectations for the program. Who called that meeting? “Tanner Morgan,” he said.
Leadership, like musical genius, is hard to define, but you recognize it when you’re in the same room. Morgan is leading the Gophers through an historic month and if he doesn’t know that, don’t worry, eventually he’ll hear about it from his coach.