Quick Hitters: Gophers historic season comes up one victory short of Big Ten Championship game

Breaking down the keys to Minnesota’s first 10-win regular season since 1905

by Nick Jungheim

Final Record: 10-2

For the first time since 1905, Minnesota secured a 10-win regular season and will play in a New Year’s Day Bowl game for the first time in five years. An 11-game winning streak carried over from last season and Minnesota reached as high as No. 7 in the AP Poll.

In November, the Gophers ran out of luck, dropping two of their final three games to Iowa and Wisconsin. The later, a 38-17 defeat, kept Minnesota at home last weekend while the Badgers played in the Big Ten Championship game.

Nevertheless, 2019 was a historic season of growth for a program that had gone 12-13 in head coach P.J. Fleck’s first two years. All-Big Ten talent emerged on both sides of the ball and the future looks bright for a team that was among the youngest in the conference.

Championship hopes were over when:

Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan fooled the Gophers’ defense with a screen pass to running back Garrett Groshek which gained 70 yards. One play later, a Badgers touchdown made the score 31-10 with a little over 11 minutes remaining. On its previous drive, Minnesota turned the ball over on downs after reaching the Wisconsin 4-yard line.

Key Plays of the season:

A 9-0 start would not have been complete without some narrow victories in non-conference plays. In the season opener, a Winston DeLattiboudere fumble recovery set up the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter.

One week later, quarterback Tanner Morgan completed a last-minute touchdown pass to receiver Chris Autman-Bell. Then, in double overtime, safety Antoine Winfield Jr. sent the Gophers home happy with a game-ending interception.

After surrendering a fourth-quarter lead against Georgia Southern and bouncing back from a third-and-29 at their own 6-yard line, the Gophers got a go-ahead touchdown catch from receiver Tyler Johnson with 13 seconds remaining.

Finally, after a string of blowout victories, safety Jordan Howden intercepted Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford to seal a 31-26 victory in a battle of undefeated teams. Fans responded by storming the field, celebrating Minnesota’s first victory over an AP top-5 team since 1999.

Five observations:

1. Tanner Morgan has established himself as the starting quarterback

Before sophomore Zack Annexstad suffered a season-ending injury in fall camp, it was unclear who would take Minnesota’s first snap of the season. Next year, a quarterback competition seems unlikely, as Morgan set a school record for passing touchdowns in a season. Ranked as the sixth most efficient passer in FBS, Morgan was named second team All-Big Ten.

2. Receivers Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman seem destined to play on Sundays

Statistically speaking, the two most productive receivers in the Big Ten wore maroon and gold. Bateman (1,170) and Johnson (1,114) were the only receivers in the conference to surpass 1,100 receiving yards. As a result, they became the first pair of teammates to both be named first team All-Big Ten at the receiver position in the same season.

3. Coming off a foot injury, Antoine Winfield Jr. did not miss a step

In the previous two seasons, Winfield missed a combined 16 games with injuries. Finally staying healthy in 2019, he ranked fourth in FBS with 7 interceptions and was named a Nagurski Award finalist, given to the best defensive player in college football. Now, Winfield must decide whether he will declare for the NFL draft, a decision that could change the shape of the Gophers’ defense in 2020.

4. The offensive line took a step forward, but must continue improving

After struggling in non-conference play, Minnesota’s blockers showed signs of progress, paving the way for running backs to combine for over 300 yards three times in October. However, in the Gophers’ two losses, the team totaled a combined 139 yards rushing. There is optimism for the unit, as all six linemen who got significant playing time will return in 2020.

5. P.J. Fleck is delivering on his promises

When first hired, Fleck’s mission was to leave the program in a better position than where he found it. With a 5-6 record entering the last game of the 2018 season, a 37-15 victory at Wisconsin set Minnesota on an upward trajectory. In light of this years’, fans will enter next year with much higher expectations for the program and its charismatic coach.