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Tanner Morgan and offense can’t capitalize on stellar defensive performance

Mistakes at inopportune times cost Minnesota a chance at the Axe.
Image by Nur B. Adam
Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan prepares to launch a pass at Huntington Bank Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020.

Through three quarters on Saturday, Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan had completed just eight of his 18 passes for 80 yards.

In most games this season, that would’ve been all you needed to know about the Gophers chances of winning. But Minnesota’s No. 88-ranked defense put together one of its best performances of the season at Camp Randall Stadium.

So, Morgan took the field with 11:30 to play in the fourth quarter, having not completed a pass since the three-minute mark of the second quarter, trailing by only a touchdown, 17-10.

The ensuing drive would be Morgan’s best, completing three of four passes, scrambling for a game-saving conversion on fourth down and finding Mike Brown-Stephens in the end zone for a touchdown to tie the game.

It was the lone bright spot for a passing offense that looked anemic throughout the game. Despite that, the Gophers defense gave them a chance to win it in the fourth quarter, intercepting a Chase Wolf pass and giving the offense over a minute to score.

They couldn’t. Then in overtime, the offense managed just seven yards on three plays and kicker Anders Gelecinskyj missed a 36-yard field goal. The Badgers would win it 20-17 on the next drive with a 30-yard field goal of their own to claim the Axe of the second straight year.

“These kids never quit, never stopped playing and played their tail ends off,” head coach P.J. Fleck said. “It could’ve been anybody’s game. Wisconsin probably could’ve made more plays. We could’ve made more plays. It is what it is. It comes down to overtime and they executed. We didn’t.”

Arguably the offense’s biggest missed opportunity came early in the second quarter. With the Gophers on Wisconsin’s two-yard-line, Mohamed Ibrahim appeared to score his 16th touchdown of the season only for the play to get called back because of holding. On the next play, Morgan forced his pass into double coverage in the end zone and was intercepted. The Gophers would punt on their next four drives.

“You can’t do it. It brings back a touchdown, the next play is an interception,” Fleck said of the holding.

“It’s on me. I just got to eat it or throw it into the second window. It’s my fault,” Morgan said of the interception. “It was a critical error that can’t happen in the game.”

Morgan lost his biggest playmaker Chris Autman-Bell early in the third quarter after he was injured returning a kickoff, meaning he was down to his third and fourth options with star receiver Rashod Bateman opting out several weeks ago. Morgan finished 13-for-25 for 160 yards with two touchdowns and the interception.

“I’m not going to sit there and say it’s [Morgan’s] best performance, but it wasn’t his worst performance,” Fleck said. “There’s maybe two, three plays you’d like to see back … We just didn’t play well enough as a team to win.”

The result was a stagnant offense held up by its run game. Ibrahim, the Big Ten Running Back of the Year, provided much of the offense for Minnesota throughout the game, eclipsing over 100 yards for the eighth consecutive game – a new school record – and 1,000 yards for the season in just seven total games.

“I thought Mo carried the load for us today. He’s still beat up and banged up a little bit. He fought through that,” Fleck said. “Mo put the team on his shoulders and I thought he played like he normally does.”

Minnesota now awaits to see if it will have one more game left this season. Fleck said after the game that the team hasn’t decided one way or another if it would accept a bowl invite. If the team is offered an invitation, Fleck said it will be a decision made cohesively by the players, staff and administration.

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