Fifteen years ago this month, on a Friday night, the Gophers football team blew a Big Ten game that seemed destined for the win column with an excruciating fourth-quarter meltdown.
Mention Michigan 2003 and long-suffering Gophers fans will break into a nervous sweat while cursing the defense’s inability to cover a screen pass.
So forgive fans still haunted by that implosion for feeling a sense of dread as they witnessed something similar unfold again. Give the Gophers a big lead on a Friday night and what could possibly go wrong, eh?
The Gophers walked to the edge of that cliff before scripting a different ending in a game that pivoted from rout to nail-biter in a flash.
Ultimately, the Gophers escaped a Gopher-esque collapse with a 38-31 win over Indiana before a waterlogged crowd that likely was the smallest in TCF Bank Stadium history in terms of actual attendance.
Freshman quarterback Tanner Morgan saved his team’s bacon with a 67-yard touchdown strike to fellow freshman Rashod Bateman with 1 minute, 34 seconds left for the winning score.
The Gophers led 31-9 entering the fourth quarter and looked in total control until they started playing giveaway with the football. One fumble, then another, then an interception.
Suddenly, it felt like 2003 all over again as Indiana pounced on their mistakes by scoring touchdowns.
The circumstances obviously were different this time because Indiana certainly isn’t Michigan, and the 2003 Gophers were a Top 20 team with ambition. But in terms of fourth-quarter calamity, we’d seen this movie before.
“What a game,” P.J. Fleck said.
Once he exhales, Fleck faces an interesting dilemma at quarterback. Which freshman does he choose if both are healthy: Morgan or Zack Annexstad?
My vote: Stick with the hot hand.
Morgan stated his case in his first career start in relief of an injured Annexstad with a performance that included a lot of positives and one costly mistake.
Morgan passed for 302 yards and three touchdowns and one fourth-quarter interception. He played nearly flawless in the first half by completing 12 of 14 passes for 203 yards and two touchdowns to Tyler Johnson. His two incompletions were on target, but one was a pass breakup and the other was a drop by his receiver.
Morgan engineered a 99-yard touchdown drive in the first half and threw a beauty for the game-winner.
Yes, his outing came against a bad Indiana defense. But the Gophers don’t have to apologize for someone else’s ineptitude.
Morgan took over in the second half last week at Nebraska after Annexstad suffered an abdominal injury and passed for 214 yards. He gives the offense a different dimension with his mobility.
Fleck didn’t update Annexstad’s condition or give a timetable for his return, but his decision seems obvious, right? It would be difficult to send Morgan back to the bench based on how he’s played in relief.
“We’ll evaluate everything,” Fleck said. “I’m really proud of his performance. Zack played really well in a lot of areas [before being injured]. A big thing too is Zack is not healthy. They’re both capable of playing football here. Both are capable of running our offense at a high level. Both of them have proven that.”
Neither is a finished products by any means, but their upside as passers gives the Gophers something to build on, however the rest of the season unfolds.
Annexstad struggled with his touch on deep passes, but he was mostly on target with passes that should be completed. Morgan likewise looks accurate on intermediate passes.
A reliable receiving corps makes a world of difference, too. The Gophers now have four legitimate Big Ten receivers. Johnson is a star, and the freshman trio of Bateman, Chris Autman-Bell and Demetrius Douglas gives them depth.
The Gophers needed all of them to avoid a collapse that would have been hard to stomach. The outcome felt like a case of déjà vu until Morgan lofted a perfect pass deep down the field.