Rashod Bateman leaped into the air, gracefully securing the ball before completing his jeté in the corner of the end zone for the Gophers’ opening number at Northwestern on Saturday.
Quarterback Tanner Morgan compared Bateman to a ballerina, the way he creates open space and toe-taps his way to touchdowns. But this primo isn’t the only principal dancer in the Gophers’ company. In fact, his pas de deux are often even more showstopping than his solos.
Bateman has combined with Tyler Johnson as a lethal dual threat in the receiving corps, condemning defenses that can’t double-cover both of them at the same time. At Northwestern on Saturday, the pair totaled 203 yards and four touchdowns, and each surpassed 1,000 receiving yards this season.
This is the first time the Gophers have sported two receivers with such an accomplishment. Only five Gophers receivers have managed at least 1,000 receiving yards in a season, and one of them was Johnson last year.
Morgan set a single-season school record for touchdown passes in the Northwestern win, and Bateman and Johnson have each caught 10 of those 26 scores. Bateman, as a sophomore, is a Biletnikoff Award semifinalist averaging 20 yards per catch. Johnson, a senior somehow left off the list for the receiving honor, is 107 yards away from tying Eric Decker as the Gophers’ all-time leading receiver.
Ask those two future NFLers about their feats, though, and they’ll defer to teammates, crediting Morgan’s throwing, their offensive line’s blocking, their running backs’ luring attention. Now ask them about each other, and suddenly they glow with pride.
Johnson is the only senior in the receiving corps and has big-brothered that group since last season. Sometimes that means his younger teammates being annoying during his interviews, trying to make him laugh in front of the camera. But most of the time, they view that role with pure admiration.
“His football IQ, I mean, he’s played football here, been a Big Ten starter for [three] years,” Bateman said of Johnson. “I just think he’s got a good feel for the game. He studies. He watches film a lot. And he works hard. And just me behind [him], I want to run my routes just like Ty because I see him be successful in his route-running and things like that.”
Johnson said there are times Bateman “absolutely” impresses him on the field.
“Seeing him go out there, making plays, making spectacular catches all the time,” Johnson said. “But it seems like it’s routine. He does it all the time in practice. And you know, that guy works hard. So he deserves it, for sure.”
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said Bateman is the best receiver in the country, with Johnson right after him.
“I think Rashod’s best friend on the field is Tyler Johnson, and Tyler Johnson’s best friend is Rashod Bateman on the field,” Fleck said. “… That is what we have had the luxury of having.”
After Bateman’s first touchdown move, the first person to give him a standing ovation was Johnson, running right to Bateman’s side and pressing their helmets together. That’s a typical scene, the duo being the first to celebrate each other’s performances.
But Bateman and Johnson aren’t done yet. There’s at least two games left this season and they’re looking to make it three, with No. 12 Wisconsin visiting TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday. That game will not only impact bowl games and College Football Playoff chances but also decide the Big Ten West winner and which team will face No. 2 Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game on Dec. 7.
“It’s for after the season,” Bateman said of reflecting on what he and Johnson have achieved. “Right now, we just need to focus on beating Wisconsin. Because no matter if we got 1,000 yards, if we’re not going to beat them, then nothing’s — we failed.”
Megan Ryan covers the Gophers and college football for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @theothermegryan E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org