Tanner Morgan couldn’t miss.
When the Gophers faced Purdue last season in the Big Ten football opener, Morgan was nearly perfect in the first half and ended the game having completed 21 of 22 passes for 95.5% accuracy, the highest in a game for any Big Ten quarterback.
Slants or fades. Rashod Bateman’s 177 receiving yards and two touchdowns or Chris Autman-Bell’s 97 yards with one score. Even a dominant running back, Rodney Smith, netting 115 yards on the ground. The Gophers offense hummed.
A year later, and it’s stalled. Not even a jump from the leading rusher in the conference in Mohamed Ibrahim has been able to restart it.
When the Gophers (1-3) take on Purdue (2-1) on Friday at TCF Bank Stadium, it will be with an offense that has diminished in the shadow of last year’s breakout. The Gophers average 29 points and 407.5 yards per game this season, largely thanks to Ibrahim’s 715 yards and 10 touchdowns.
But the passing game has dropped from more than 253 yards per game in 2019 to just more than 192. Morgan has completed 61 of 106 passes for 769 yards through four games and sports as many touchdowns as interceptions with four of each.
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said he counted an uncharacteristic eight drops in last week’s 35-7 loss to Iowa. But that’s not the only aspect of this offense that’s been unrecognizable. The 2020 team was known for artfully mixing the play-calling with runs and passes, for orchestrating long drives to control possession.
Against Iowa, it was abundantly obvious the ball would either be in Ibrahim’s hands or sailing toward Bateman. Both lead the conference in attempts, with Ibrahim’s 130 carries and Bateman’s 32 catches. And the one almost-11-minute drive that traversed 74 yards in 17 plays ended in a missed 39-yard field goal.
“We have kind of a once-in-a-generation type of talent at wide receiver, and so there’s going to be some looks that are going to be very advantageous for us to run the football,” offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. said. “We don’t have one of the leading rushers in college football just solely because we want to run the ball every play.”
Pass it on
Even Bateman, though, hasn’t looked like the 1,000-yard receiver and first-round draft pick from a year ago, partly because he’s missing his fellow 1,000-yard partner in Tyler Johnson, now of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Johnson and Bateman traded off attracting double coverage last season, with Autman-Bell stepping in for a big catch every now and then. With Johnson out of the slot, Bateman has taken more snaps there but hasn’t found the comfort and success Johnson had.
Brady Quinn, a CBS Sports HQ analyst who called the Gophers’ game against Iowa, said watching Morgan and Bateman reminded him of a similar experience when he played quarterback for Notre Dame. He had played with a pair of receivers for several years, but they switched positions, including one moving from Z (flanker, usually lining up on the strong side of a formation) to X (split end, generally on the strong side).
“The problem with that was he didn’t really run routes like a normal X receiver. A normal X receiver is the guy that … you like to take shots to him or isolate him because he’s either got elite speed and route-running ability or he’s going to be a big receiver with a catch radius,” Quinn said. “… And so I remember having a hard time really getting down a lot of the timing of routes, whether it’s an out, a comeback, a skinny post.”
Fleck noticed that as well, how the timing seemed a hair off, which makes a big difference when Morgan has to throw the ball before receivers are out of their cuts. That intuition and connection seemed inherent last year. This season, both sides seem to trust the other less.
Sanford, too. He joined the team in January in place of Kirk Ciarrocca, Fleck’s longtime right-hand man who departed for Penn State. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Sanford didn’t have the usual offseason of spring practices and training camp for hands-on work with his offense or the quarterbacks, the position he helms as well. He’s adapted to quickly learning new teams before, having coached at six programs in the past eight years.
Former Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush felt an immediate connection to Sanford when the coach joined Notre Dame’s staff in Wimbush’s senior year of high school. Wimbush became Notre Dame’s starter in 2017 after Sanford left to be the head coach at Western Kentucky,
“I’ve seen him do this really well,” Wimbush said. “… If it’s personnel changes, if there’s scheme changes, if there’s tempo changes, those sorts of things, I think the second half of the season, he’ll make the necessary adjustments.”
Nevertheless, the Gophers have committed some questionable play-calling between Sanford and Fleck, such as when the Gophers were down only 14-0 when face with a third-and-6 from Iowa’s 20-yard line on that long drive. They took a timeout, then handed the ball to Ibrahim for the fifth consecutive time and lost 1 yard before missing the field goal.
Sanford said he’s tried to maintain the delicate balance of spreading the ball out to more possible playmakers — whether that be Autman-Bell, the tight ends or Morgan on keepers — while also honoring Bateman’s skill. He also said the relationship he’s built with Morgan, despite the limited time, is rock-solid. That just hasn’t necessarily manifested itself on the field as well as Ciarrocca and Morgan’s understanding did.
Feel it out
Quinn was on record last season after the Gophers beat higher-ranked Penn State to go 9-0 that he wasn’t convinced the Gophers were a top team. Part of his reasoning then is still true in 2020.
“A lot of their passing game is based off of play-action pass,” Quinn said. “… The problem is, there’s going to be times when that’s not going to work within the confines of the game, depending on the score. If you get down by a bunch, running ... anything of that nature is irrelevant because the defense knows you have to throw the football.
“… You’d be better off getting Ibrahim or any other running back out into space to impact the coverage if it’s zone coverage or to potentially get the football to if it’s man-to-man coverage.”
Smith — the leading rusher in last year’s Purdue game who ended the 11-2 season with 1,163 yards — said offense is all about rhythm. Last year’s team had a flow that made the sideline-glance checks — sometimes to confirm the play, sometimes just for show — look like a choreographed dance rather than a confused search.
But it wasn’t always like that. Smith remembered how the Gophers bumbled through their nonconference schedule in 2019 — something COVID-19 wiped away this year — eking out wins until finally finding the beat after Purdue.
“Our first four games, they were not the best games,” said Smith, who recently made his NFL debut with the Carolina Panthers. “We were sputtering. We had to figure it out. … I know everyone remembers what we did at the end of the year. It’s easy to look back at it and say, ‘Well, they’re struggling, and they’re not in a rhythm [this season].’ ”
Smith also said that last season’s opponents didn’t expect the Gophers to be good. Now they’re not a secret, and everyone knows to key on Morgan, Bateman and Ibrahim.
Morgan, though, has done his best to project confidence instead of panic despite his and his team’s dipped performances. He said all the team has to do is execute better. And he credits his faith as helping him keep a level head about the Gophers’ current spiral.
“I personally know that I’m saved, and I know where I’m going eternally,” Morgan said. “And that kind of makes, in the grand scheme of things, a game sound a little different.”