The Gophers passing game was a study of contrasts in Saturday's 27-22 loss at Iowa. It produced 220 yards, the most it has in any game this season yet was short-circuited by some errant throws and dropped balls.
When coach P.J. Fleck reviewed the tape from Minnesota's second consecutive defeat, he decided that the passing game's shortcomings are a team issue and won't fall at the feet of one person. Tanner Morgan will remain his starting quarterback.
"It was not just Tanner, it was everybody,'' Fleck said Monday during his weekly news conference. "We dropped too many balls, and we can't do that. We can't afford to drop balls and get into a rhythm. With the small amount of throws that we had in that game, you have to be efficient.''
Morgan completed 14 of 30 passes for 183 yards at Iowa. His one touchdown pass, a 68-yarder to Chris Autman-Bell, who beat his defender on a double move, pulled with Gophers within 24-22 with 5:28 left in the fourth quarter. Morgan's 2-point conversion pass to tie the score was batted down, and the Gophers' last-gasp possession reached the Iowa 39 but ended with a sack of Morgan and a fumble by the QB as time ran out.
That left Minnesota with a 6-4 overall record and in a third-place tie with Purdue in the Big Ten West Division with a 4-3 conference mark, one game behind co-leaders Wisconsin and Iowa. The Gophers will try to keep their faint division hopes alive Saturday at Indiana, and Morgan will be under center.
"I've just got to execute better,'' Morgan said after the game. "I have to play better, give us more opportunities to be successful.''
The fifth-year senior has endured a difficult season. He has completed 116 of 201 passes (57.7%) for 1,540 yards and seven touchdowns with seven interceptions, averaging 154 yards per game. The Gophers run the ball 69.1% of the time, and Morgan is averaging 20.1 passes, which ranks 11th in the Big Ten.
"There's a lot of factors that go into that, and he understands that,'' Fleck said. "It's not about one player's performance. It's not. We're a team. The more resources you have around you, the better you can be. When you don't have as many resources around you, you have to play even better.''
The limited resources have included a wide receiver group in flux. Autman-Bell has been in and out of the lineup since suffering an ankle injury during training camp. On Saturday, he was targeted 12 times and caught five passes for 109 yards and a TD.
Daniel Jackson missed two games because of injury. Dylan Wright, promising early in the season with nine catches for 169 yards in the first three games, didn't play at Iowa. "Guys earn their playing time. Period,'' Fleck said when asked why Wright didn't play.
Under Fleck and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr., the running game is the emphasis, with the pass playing a complementary role. That approach worked during the Gophers' four-game Big Ten win streak, but Illinois and Iowa exposed the strategy's shortcomings the past two weeks.
Still, Fleck saw positives from his offense.
"There's only two teams [Purdue and Wisconsin] that scored more points than we did against Iowa,'' he said. "There's only one other team that had more yards against Iowa. We're talking about a top-10 defense. And we come out of it with 22 points. I thought we gave our team, as a team, the best chance to win. And in the fourth quarter we just weren't able to do that.''