LINCOLN, NEB. – The moment of truth arrived for the Gophers offense late in the fourth quarter.
Leading by seven on the road, the Gophers took possession with 4 minutes, 42 seconds remaining. Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. had called running plays to start nine of their first 10 possessions before this one.
The inclination was that he would make it 10 of 11 in an attempt to bleed time off the clock.
He trusted his quarterback. He trusted Tanner Morgan because Morgan has earned that trust. And Morgan delivered in the clutch to reward that show of faith.
Other story lines will garner more attention — and deservedly so — to explain and praise the Gophers' 24-17 win over Nebraska on Saturday, but one very important fact should not be overlooked in the conversation: Morgan can throw the ball to his target, while Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez looks like a baseball pitcher who can't locate the strike zone.
Proving that statistics can be deceiving, Morgan completed only one more pass than Martinez in the game, but the difference in quarterback competency on display at Memorial Stadium felt a mile wide.
Morgan's one extra completion came on first down on that game-clinching drive.
Rolling right, he lofted the ball over a linebacker in coverage, and Clay Geary made a diving catch along the sideline for a 10-yard gain.
"He made a phenomenal catch when we needed it most," Morgan said.
The pass was a beauty, too, because Morgan fit it into a tight window with a 15-mph wind in his face.
The Gophers were able to run out the clock after that completion with six consecutive runs by Mohamed Ibrahim.
Morgan has had better performances statistically against far superior defenses, but this one was noteworthy because of all the moving parts surrounding him. And because of the ineffectiveness of the quarterback on the other sideline.
Morgan's final stat line: 17-of-30 passing for 181 yards and one touchdown.
On the surface, ho-hum, right?
This was the Gophers' first game in 22 days because of two COVID-19 cancellations.
The offense played without its top three tight ends, two starting linemen and one star wide receiver, Rashod Bateman.
And a partridge in a pear tree.
Morgan's receivers dropped four passes early in the game. He also put a deep throw on the money to freshman Daniel Jackson that went incomplete on a terrific breakup by the defender.
Morgan showed his toughness after getting drilled on a scramble by Nebraska cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt, who was ejected for targeting. The penalty gave the Gophers a first down inside the Nebraska 10, and Morgan found tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford in the back of the end zone for a touchdown right before halftime.
"I honestly had no idea it was targeting," Morgan said. "I was asked by probably every medical member on our staff if I was OK. They were concerned for me. I appreciate them for that."
His performance certainly wasn't flawless. He had three passes deflected at the line, and he missed a few receivers. But Morgan provided a steady hand in the middle of chaotic circumstances.
More succinctly, he was a credible option as a passer. Nebraska's Martinez was a liability.
That was the difference in the game.
For sure, the Gophers defense deserves credit for showing improvement, but that unit also benefited from Martinez's wildness. He overthrew open receivers, and two of those plays would have resulted in big gains.
Martinez missed high, he missed low, he missed wide.
He passed for only 111 yards on 27 attempts, completing 16 of them.
He was so erratic that, after back-to-back incompletions in the fourth quarter, the Cornhuskers called a running play on third-and-10.
Martinez had success running the ball — 96 yards rushing and one touchdown — but at some point, a team needs its quarterback to be able to complete a pass in an important spot.
Martinez made his 26th career start Saturday. It was Morgan's 25th.
Only one looked like a veteran. His team won.