Tanner Morgan had an eventful Monday morning. The Gophers quarterback was named the Big Ten football co-freshman of the week, and coach P.J. Fleck announced that the redshirt freshman again will start at Illinois on Saturday.
Morgan earned the Big Ten honor for his performance in a 38-31 victory over Indiana on Friday night. Making his first career start in place of injured true freshman Zack Annexstad, Morgan completed 17 of 24 passes for 302 yards and three touchdowns. Included in that was a 67-yard hookup with Rashod Bateman that provided the winning points with 1 minute, 34 seconds left in the game.
Morgan, who shared the award with Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi, completed nine of his first 10 passes and helped the Gophers build a 31-9 lead in the third quarter.
“We still have two freshmen and one’s not healthy, and the other comes in and plays and plays extremely well,” Fleck said Monday. “… You give an opportunity to the guy who is playing really, really well. Not that Zack wasn’t playing well, but he’s got to get healthy.”
Fleck did not have a further update on Annexstad, who missed the second half of the Oct. 20 game at Nebraska because of an internal midsection injury. Annexstad also has been limited in his mobility because of an ankle injury suffered Sept. 15 vs. Miami (Ohio).
No word on Brooks yet
Fleck also didn’t have an update on other injured Gophers. The most concerning of those is senior running back Shannon Brooks, who, while making his season debut Friday, suffered a right knee injury while making a cut during a fourth-quarter run. Brooks, who rushed 22 times for 154 yards against the Hoosiers, fell to the turf without being tackled after gaining 27 yards. He was tended to on the field and received assistance to the sideline.
On Sept. 8 against Fresno State, the Gophers lost senior running back Rodney Smith for the season to a torn anterior cruciate knee ligament when he made a cut after catching a screen pass.
Redshirt freshman Mohamed Ibrahim (undisclosed injury) did not play Friday. True freshman Bryce Williams rushed seven times for 17 yards. He started against Indiana, but Brooks took over on the second series.
Illinois DC resigns
The Gophers will face an Illinois team without its defensive coordinator. Hardy Nickerson resigned that post Monday, two days after the Illini gave up 712 yards in a 63-33 loss at Maryland.
Illinois is giving up an average of 569 yards and 47.6 points in Big Ten play, figures that rank last in the league.
“Hardy informed me yesterday that he felt it was in the program’s best interest to leave our staff,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said in a statement. “I’ve known and coached with Hardy for many years and know what an outstanding person he is. We are all disappointed in the performance of our defense this season, and we all bear responsibility for that.”
Fleck doesn’t expect drastic changes from the Illini defense Saturday. Smith said he will handle the defensive play calls.
“I don’t know if you’ll see a ton of changes schematically,” he said. “Lovie’s been one of the best defensive coaches in the National Football League and just football in general in the last 20-some years. … He’ll be doing it his way. There’s going to be some wrinkles, some new things we have not seen.”
Extra time to prepare
Since the Gophers played Friday, they had an extra day to prepare for this week’s game. Fleck said that helped with rest and studying Illinois.
“I loved our response the last few days,” Fleck said. “We’ve been almost [using] it as another bye week, playing on Friday. We’ve been getting a ton of film [work] in without getting as much contact.
“… We’re short on bodies,” he added. “We’ve got to make sure on this four-game stretch [to end the season] that we’ve got our guys as healthy as possible.’’