Gopher football team has “weird glow” about them, enjoy it.
What a week for the Gopher football program. First, P.J. Fleck is rewarded with a multi-million-dollar contract extension for leading the team to its best start in nearly 80 years, followed by Saturday’s epic win over then no. 5 Penn State University.
As with most “overnight successes,” this one has been a long time coming, but to see the Gophers find a way to win a close game shouldn’t have been surprising to those who have followed the team all season.
South Dakota State had the Gophers on the ropes in the season opener, only to turn the ball over twice in the fourth quarter with a botched handoff leading to the game-winning touchdown in a 28-21 Gopher win.
In week 2, Antione Winfield Jr. intercepted a pass at the end zone to seal a 38-35 double overtime road win over Fresno State. But, to even reach overtime, the Gophers needed a fourth and 13, last-second touchdown pass from Tanner Morgan to Chris Autman-Bell.
Then, in week 3, Georgia Southern led the Gophers 32-28, late. But with 3 minutes and 47 seconds left, the Gophers put together a 13 play, 75-yard drive, finished by a 2-yard touchdown pass from Morgan to Tyler Johnson with just 13 seconds to play, in a 35-32 Gopher victory.
While the Gophers have been maligned for their schedule leading up to Penn State, the fact that they were forced to perform in late-game, high-pressure situations early, served them well in producing the program’s biggest victory since a 1962 win over UCLA in the Rose Bowl.
Now come “rivalry games” against ranked opponents Iowa and Wisconsin, sandwiched around a “trap game” at Northwestern. No doubt the P.J. Fleck era has arrived, what remains to be seen is what this team can still accomplish in just Fleck’s third season on the job. Remarkable.
Morgan worthy of Heisman consideration?
It would have been ludicrous to even think about Gopher quarterback Tanner Morgan being in the Heisman Trophy conversation at the start of the season. Remember, Morgan came off the bench for starter Zach Annexstad last year to engineer the upset of Wisconsin, and the bowl game win over Georgia Tech.
This year, Annexstad was thought to be leading the quarterback competition in training camp until he suffered a foot injury on August 2, which has sidelined him ever since.
All Tanner Morgan has done since stepping in is go 13-2 as the Gophers starting quarterback. Saturday against Penn State, statistically one of the best defenses in the country, Morgan completed 18 passes of 20 attempts, for 339 yards and 3 touchdowns.
In doing so, Morgan joins former Heisman trophy winner Jameis Winston as the only quarterbacks in the last 20 years to produce two games in the same season with at least 20 passes with a 90% completion rate.
Winston was rewarded with a Heisman trophy, and if Morgan and the Gophers keep producing down the stretch he’ll have to receive similar consideration.
Winfield honored for his play against PSU
Senior safety Antione Winfield Jr. is the Walter Camp national defensive player of the week for his effort in the Gophers 31-26 upset of Penn State.
Winfield recorded 11 tackles, nine of them solo and two interceptions, both of which led to Gopher touchdowns.
Playing as a 5th-year senior, Winfield has had each of the last two seasons end early due to injury, his presence in the Gophers defensive backfield can’t be overstated.
Can’t overlook Gophers O-Line
I know this column has been all about the Gopher football team, but I simply couldn’t go without saying something about the Gophers offensive line. Remember, this is a position that was so thin when Fleck arrived on campus that the Gophers couldn’t even have a spring game in 2017.
Against Penn State’s heavily favored front seven, the Gophers threw a formation the Nittany Lions were totally unprepared for. The unbalanced line formation allowed the Gophers to gain 121 hard-fought yards on the ground against a unit that came in only surrendering 68 yards on average. Equally important, quarterback Tanner Morgan was sacked just one time.
The Gophers upset of Penn State was truly a team victory, one that Head Coach P.J. Fleck dedicated to the entire state of Minnesota. I just wanted to tip my cap to a unit that has improved greatly and will be compared to more highly touted units at Iowa and Wisconsin in the weeks to come.