Sharper image: This is more of what we expected out of the Gophers' aerial attack
MINNEAPOLIS — Both members of P.J. Fleck’s first recruiting class at Minnesota, Tanner Morgan and Chris Autman-Bell became fast friends when they got to the Twin Cities.
Now, they stay late after every practice and work on extra routes — including the fade routes that were so effective for the Golden Gophers in their 34-31 win over Purdue on Friday night at TCF Bank Stadium.
Autman-Bell models the concepts after teammate Rashod Bateman, who’s destined for the NFL, and last year’s top receiver Tyler Johnson, who’s already there.
“I hope I can just keep that train going,” Autman-Bell said. “But it’s something we work on all the time.”
It paid off big-time against the Boilermakers, especially on a 4th-and-8 call in the 3rd quarter that set up the score that gave the Gophers a 28-17 lead.
Bateman attracted a lot of safety attention on that play, creating a 1-on-1 matchup for Autman-Bell.
“I just made my play when the call was made,” Autman-Bell said. “Tanner gave me a beautiful ball.”
This was more of what we expected to see from a passing offense that ranked 4th in the Big Ten last year but had struggled to find its footing during Minnesota’s 1-3 start.
Autman-Bell led the way, catching 5 passes for a career-high 129 yards to help the Gophers gain their 2nd win.
“He’s a special player, special dude, and he keeps getting better,” Morgan said of his fellow redshirt junior. “He’s so talented that every ball that’s up, his mentality is ‘it’s mine.’ That’s a really good feeling to have as a quarterback.”
Morgan found 7 receivers Friday. Bateman had 4 catches for 59 yards, and freshman Daniel Jackson had a pair of nice grabs in crucial moments, too.
“We just played our ball and did our thing,” Autman-Bell said.
They were enabled by offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr.’s best play-calling showing in his first year here. A mix of high-percentage throws and occasional shots complemented FBS’ leading rusher Mohamed Ibrahim, who added 102 yards rushing and 3 touchdowns.
Minnesota produced points on 5 of 8 drives Friday. Morgan played mistake-free football, finishing 15-for-22 for 264 yards.
It was by far Morgan’s best game of the season. The quarterback had regressed through 4 games but never lost confidence, he said.
“He had an edge to him,” Fleck said. “He played gritty and was accurate. A complete understanding of the offense, controlled the offense and controlled his teammates, putting them in the best position to be successful with ball placement, where it needed to be, when it needed to be there.”
Said Autman-Bell: “I see toughness from Tanner every day. He’s a leader on this football team, one of the best leaders around this country. I’ve known him since high school, since we committed together and came here together. I’ve always seen toughness in Tanner, always seen an edge in him. I learn a lot from Tanner daily [about] being a leader.”
It all came against the B1G’s 2nd-worst pass defense playing most of the night without its top pass rusher in George Karlaftis.
But it was a much-needed step in the right direction ahead of what’ll be Minnesota’s toughest test to date. Wisconsin’s secondary is the strength of a defense that hasn’t had many opportunities to show it thanks to COVID-19, but is one of the B1G’s best.
The Gophers needed a jolt after a dismal showing last Friday in a 35-7 loss to Iowa.
“We had a lot of opportunities to grow from last week,” Morgan said. “I had a lot of fun playing football with our offense today, with our team. At the end of the day, that’s really what it’s all about. We did it for each other tonight.”