Gophers confident in Tanner Morgan if Annexstad is unable to play

The redshirt freshman player took the keys to the offense against Nebraska for the injured Zack Annexstad.

Quarterback Tanner Morgan looks to throw the ball on Saturday, Oct. 20 at Memorial Stadium. Nebraska defeated the Gophers with a final score of 53-28.

Jack Rodgers

Quarterback Tanner Morgan looks to throw the ball on Saturday, Oct. 20 at Memorial Stadium. Nebraska defeated the Gophers with a final score of 53-28.

Paul Hodowanic

There is plenty for Minnesota fans to worry about after last week’s 53-28 loss against Nebraska: The defense gave up high-yardage plays, the running game never got in a rhythm and starting quarterback Zack Annexstad was injured. However, a bright spot emerged from the struggle in Tanner Morgan. 

Morgan took over at quarterback for the start of the second half after Annexstad injured his midsection in the final series of the first half. The injury required him to leave the stadium and get hospital treatment. Head coach P.J. Fleck said Annexstad seems to be doing well, but it remains to be seen if he can suit up on a short week and take on Indiana Friday night. 

In the second half, Morgan led the team to two consecutive scoring drives, which cut the lead to seven points. However, the following two drives stalled in the red zone. One ended on a failed fourth down conversion and the other ended on a tipped-ball interception thrown by Morgan. 

Morgan was critical of the throw in his post-game press conference. 

“I [have to] throw a better ball, whether it was tipped or not. I take full responsibility,” he said. 

Morgan finished the game 11-16 for 214 yards and an interception. He also added a dimension in the run game, rushing for 35 yards and the first touchdown of his college career. 

“Tanner went in there and does what he does. … He went in there and owned the team, commanded the team, led the team and that’s what we expect when we put him in there,” Fleck said. “He gave us a little bit more with the feet — he was able to run some [options], escape the pocket, pick up a first down here and there, get some yardage on first down and make it second and short.”

His ability to run and create plays stood out during the game. It was part of the reason the team was able to get in a rhythm offensively. 

“We’re not going to mistake him for Herschel Walker, but obviously his ‘escapability’ is better with where Zack [Annexstad] is with his health,” said offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca. “I think that really affects a defense, whenever they do everything right and the quarterback is able to pull the ball down and run for a first down or create something.”

Annexstad and Morgan battled for the starting job throughout spring ball and into fall practices, with Annexstad ultimately winning the position. However, Morgan remained a strong presence in the locker room and on the field. 

“Tanner’s a great leader for this football team. He’s always over cheering the offensive line too. … When he sees something out there from the sideline, he points it out, he talks with the coaches about it,” said offensive lineman Conner Olson. “It’s helpful for us … and he’ll continue to be vocal in whatever his role may be.”

Annexstad has battled injuries throughout the season. He sustained an ankle injury, and though it hasn’t caused him to miss more than a couple plays, it has had a lingering effect on his game. If he is able to play on Friday, there may be questions about how his injured midsection will affect his presence in the pocket, his ability to throw the ball and how he responds to getting hit. 

The team has confidence in both players. 

“Both quarterbacks are great guys, they call a great game for us and make it a lot easier to play offensive line with both those guys back there,” Olson said. “Whoever it is back there, it is fun to play with them.”

Jack Warrick contributed to this story.