What happened? Minnesota's Tanner Morgan remains confident while searching for personal, team answers
Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan took the virtual podium Monday sporting the same even-keeled demeanor Golden Gophers fans have come to relish plus a newly-shaved fu manchu mustache to add some flair.
In these tiny glimpses of live-streamed digital interaction, you’d never know what Morgan has been through this season. A dad with cancer. A city rocked by social unrest and violence. A football season gone awry.
All in the midst of a pandemic.
“I think being in a leadership position, it’s what you want,” Morgan said. “Being able to have the things on your shoulders. It’s not always going to be positive results, but you’re a person that people look up to and you kind of make things go. As a leader, you want that responsibility.”
Morgan is uber-detailed in his preparation yet always one to focus on the big picture. That won’t change as he seeks to navigate the present challenges.
Poor passing numbers and the team’s horrid start to this season pale in comparison to his father’s battle to recover from a brain tumor and what happened on the streets of Minneapolis this summer. But football is Morgan’s vehicle for greater goods, and it’s how he spends most of his time.
So it’s worth asking the question: What the heck has happened this year?
Morgan entered his junior season with sky-high expectations, having wrested the starting quarterback job midway through his freshman season and ranking among FBS’s best in 2019. Minnesota put together a dream 11-win season, with Morgan at the center of it.
He’s yet to find a rhythm this season. He’s completing 57.5 percent of his passes compared to an eye-popping 66 percent last season. His passer rating is down from 178.7 (fourth in FBS) last year to 123.39 (87th).
He doesn’t look as cocksure when he drops back to pass. He misses throws he used to complete with ease.
Minnesota is 1-3 heading into this Friday’s game against Purdue. The Gophers looked helpless in a 35-7 loss to Iowa last Friday.
Those are the cold, hard symptoms. The problems are more nuanced.
“It stands out like a sore thumb because there is a standard of how we play,” coach P.J. Fleck said. “There’s an expectation of how we play. There’s an expectation of how we coach, and I’m the first one to take 100% accountability for it, because it had to do with something that I did. I’ve got to be better in the details, even more than I am.”
Morgan takes full responsibility for his team’s struggles, too.
The ultra competitor in him likely causes Morgan to press at times, especially when the Gophers are trailing. See his 2 untimely interceptions against the Hawkeyes.
“There’s obviously a lot that I have to do better, because everything runs through me,” Morgan said. “For us to be better, I have to be better. I will be.”
With all five offensive line starters returning, plus the experience of Mohamed Ibrahim and Rashod Bateman, offense was supposed to be the strength of Minnesota’s team. But two of those offensive linemen — Curtis Dunlap and Daniel Faalele — have been out indefinitely, and the Gophers haven’t had much help from their defense.
The departures of field-stretching receiver Tyler Johnson and four NFL draft picks on defense have been magnified. Minnesota is allowing a Big Ten-worst 35.8 points per game.
And for all Bateman does well, he hasn’t been a deep threat anywhere near the level of Johnson. Defenses have been happy to keep Bateman in front of them and yield short slants and crossing routes, daring Morgan to beat them another way.
Too often, he hasn’t been able to.
Fleck counted 8 drops by receivers against Iowa. There’s also a new offensive coordinator directing traffic in Mike Sanford Jr., who took over when Kirk Ciarrocca left for Penn State.
But Morgan classifies that as a non-issue.
“It’s not like we’re doing a bunch of different things or whatever,” Morgan said. “We 100 percent truly believe and trust in our coaching staff, we believe in each other. We just have to execute better. It sounds silly, it sounds simple, but it’s really the small details, the little things that help you to have success.
“That starts with me.”
Fleck was asked Monday if backup quarterback Zack Annexstad is ready for another shot. It was Annexstad whom Morgan replaced in 2018. Morgan was reportedly behind the walk-on from Norseland, Minnesota, in fall camp last year before Annexstad suffered another injury.
Michigan, Michigan State, Illinois, Nebraska and Penn State have all subbed out starting quarterbacks this fall.
“One thing I’ll say about him is he’s become an ultimate teammate,” Fleck said of Annexstad, “and he’s ready for his opportunity just like he at one point had his opportunity, and then things outside of his control happen, then he got hurt again. He’s matured so much. … When he has an opportunity to play, he’s going to play well. And I feel that way with all of our quarterbacks.”
Fleck is far from giving up on the guy who helped Minnesota deliver its best season in over a century, though.
Short of a shakeup under center, can the Gophers fix what ails them? They have virtually no shot of winning their division and Thanksgiving is suddenly right around the corner.
In 2020, every coach runs the risk of losing his team if the season doesn’t go as planned. Sacrificing your social life due to COVID-19 protocols becomes a lot less attractive for college kids with no tangible carrot.
Just don’t expect Morgan to be part of anything like that.
“There’s a lot of opportunities to learn, good and bad,” Morgan said. “There are some things you might get away with. But if you don’t … learn from it, that’s not growth. You’re not growing from that moment.
“I’m still incredibly confident in this team and my abilities.”