The Gophers probably don’t need Tanner Morgan to be perfect in order to keep their season perfect. But it sure comes in handy.
The sophomore quarterback was nearly flawless in leading 17th-ranked Minnesota to a 31-26 victory over Penn State on Saturday, throwing more touchdown passes (three) than incompletions (two), turning in his fourth interception-free outing in six Big Ten games, and taking only one sack. Morgan went 8-for-8 after halftime, piled up 339 passing yards, and helped Rashod Bateman produce the greatest receiving day in TCF Bank history.
“He knows how to take a program from where they are to where they always dreamed of being,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said of Morgan, who is now 13-2 as a starter. “He’s a winner.”
Sean Clifford hasn’t been bad, either, stepping in for the Nittany Lions after projected starter Tommy Stevens transferred in June. But while Clifford almost exactly matched Morgan’s passing yardage with 340 yards of his own, his day couldn’t have been much different.
Morgan was the quarterback assigned to deal with one of the Big Ten’s best defenses, including a harassing defensive line that is the country’s second-best against the run and top 20 in sacks. Clifford, the Big Ten leader in total offense in conference games, had thrown three interceptions all season.
So go figure: Clifford, forced to throw some floaters by the Gophers’ pass rush, matched that total with three picks in one game, while Morgan, who completed 18 of 20 passes, barely seemed to notice the large bodies trying to bury him.
“You saw their D-line. You saw what they look like,” Fleck said. “They’re tough. They’re long. They’re strong. We knew we were going to have to mix it up.”
They did it by doubling down on Morgan’s biggest strength: his ability to read the defense and react quickly. Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca’s game plan emphasized RPOs — run-pass options — to keep those Nittany Lions off of the quarterback, with Morgan taking the snap, putting it in a running back’s hands, then deciding whether to let go of it or pull it back and throw a quick pass.
Penn State coach James Franklin was frustrated — but impressed, too.
“They do a great job at it. You’ve got to commit so much to stopping the run that you’re one-on-one [downfield], and their receivers are really good,” Franklin said. “He’s very comfortable in the pocket. … And the ball is coming out quick, he’s not holding on to it. That’s who he’s been.”
Here’s who he is now, sort of: Jameis Winston, a Heisman Trophy winner and the only other quarterback in this century to compete 90% of his passes in two games in one season. Morgan completed 21 of 22 at Purdue in September.
“It all starts with the game plan,” Morgan said. “The RPOs were successful for us today because we practiced it a lot, looked at film on it, on the ways to be successful. It set us up for success.”
It did, in a way that Clifford couldn’t, especially at the most critical moments. Facing fourth-and-goal at the Minnesota 5 while trailing 31-19, Clifford was told to throw a fade pass to the right side of the end zone to KJ Hamler. But the pass got too close to the sideline, and Gophers safety Chris Williamson knocked it away, a critical defensive stop.
And on the game’s final drive, Clifford tried to force a third-and-24 pass to Hamler in the end zone. It came up a bit short, and Jordan Howden intercepted it.
“I could have played a lot better. I say that every week,” Clifford grumbled. “This week, it actually hurt us.”