Tanner Morgan's final two snaps of the last Gophers game at Huntington Bank Stadium in 2021 came out of the Victory formation, a couple of kneel-downs that finished Minnesota's 23-13 victory over No. 14 Wisconsin in the battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe on Saturday. It set off a field-storming celebration as Minnesota beat its archrival.
Those won't be the final snaps of the quarterback's Gophers career, though. Morgan is returning for his sixth season in 2022, a source with knowledge of the situation confirmed Sunday.
Morgan, who earned his second victory as the starting QB in the Axe rivalry game, has the opportunity to play another year because players received an NCAA waiver during the COVID-19-altered 2020 season.
"It's a pretty special feeling,'' Morgan said of winning the Axe after Saturday's game. "It makes me think about when we won it in 2018, how much it meant to the state and this program. Being able to do it here in front of our fans definitely means a lot. I'm just thankful to be part of this state and part of this program that cherishes playing in games like this.''
The Union, Ky., native has been the Gophers starting quarterback since the eighth game of the 2018 season, posting a school-record 26 victories against 12 defeats. On Saturday, he completed 11 of 16 passes for 199 yards and a touchdown against Wisconsin. He also rebounded nicely from having a tipped pass intercepted and returned 25 yards for a Badgers touchdown in the second quarter by leading the Gophers to 20 points after that, including a pair of second-half TDs.
"It's all about response, which is something I pride myself on,'' Morgan said. "… I knew I had to stay focused, stay calm and execute.''
Morgan did not participate in Saturday's Senior Day festivities, a sign that his return could be in the works.
Coach P.J. Fleck, who recruited Morgan first to Western Michigan, then to Minnesota after he got the Gophers job in January 2017, credited the quarterback for his resilience throughout the season and after his interception Saturday.
"That's why Tanner's Tanner. He responds from that,'' Fleck said. "… The way he responds after that and makes those huge throws – that's why I'm so proud of him. For all of the criticism he takes, he handles it with dignity and respect, and he understands the position he's in. We don't give him enough credit for how he handles it.''
Morgan has endured a lot in 2021, including the July death of his father, Ted, who battled brain cancer for more than a year. Morgan had his ups and downs on the field this season – two-interception games in losses to Bowling Green and Indiana – and he took criticism when the passing game didn't find its rhythm while the offense relied heavily on the running game. But come late December or early January, he'll be quarterbacking the Gophers (8-4, 6-3 Big Ten) in their third bowl appearance in four years.
"Tanner's been through everything in this world, and some people couldn't go through what he's been through,'' said wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell, Morgan's teammate since 2017. "He still comes in every day and leads this team with a smile on his face. To show up every day, that's what a leader is.''
With Morgan returning, redshirt sophomore quarterback Jacob Clark has entered the NCAA's transfer portal, a source told the Star Tribune. Clark, a Rockwall, Texas, native and former four-star recruit, did not see action this year or last but played in one game in 2019, completing his only pass for 39 yards.
That leaves the Gophers four returning scholarship quarterbacks – Morgan, Zack Annexstad, who'll be a redshirt senior and who started the first seven games in 2018; Cole Kramer, who ran the wildcat offense this season and will be a redshirt junior in 2022; and Athan Kaliakmanis, a redshirt freshman next year. Incoming freshman Jacob Knuth of Harrisburg, S.D., also will be on scholarship.
In that group, Fleck will have the option in Morgan to use a leader he trusts.
"He's a powerful force, he's a winner, and that kid's going to do anything he wants in his life,'' Fleck said.
- Linebacker DJ Gordon IV, a redshirt sophomore, has entered the transfer portal, a source said. Gordon played in all 12 games this season, finishing with five tackles and one forced fumble. He had 18 tackles in 11 games over the 2019 and 2020 seasons.