Minnesota Golden Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan’s 2020 season opener started brightly but finished poorly.
In the first half of Minnesota’s 49-24 loss to Michigan last Saturday, Morgan completed 80 percent of his passes for 84 yards, with one touchdown. In the second half, he completed only 37 percent for 113 yards and one interception.
“I think there was some really good. I think there was some really bad,” head coach P.J. Fleck said postgame Saturday. “I think there was some inconsistency.”
During his sensational sophomore season last fall, Morgan was fourth in the nation in quarterback rating — behind only Joe Burrow, Jalen Hurts, Justin Fields. After a small, one-game sample this year, Morgan’s rating is 77th in the country. It’s down from 178 to 115.
“I think the main thing is we just have to execute at a way higher level, and we will,” the second-team all-Big Ten player from 2019 said Tuesday. “That’s something that we’re capable of and that we will get out of our team, just executing at our standard.”
Fleck said Morgan’s first-quarter fumble, which was induced on an undetected cornerback blitz, was “not necessarily on him,” but it directly led to a Wolverines touchdown and a 14-7 deficit Minnesota from which would never recover.
With the COVID-19 cloud hanging over the season, Morgan said he and teammates have been taking every precaution possible to stay on the field as the disease has hit some of his teammates and Big Ten competition.
“Nobody wants to sit out 21 days, point blank, period,” Morgan said. He said he and his teammates always wear masks and remain socially distant inside the Larson Football Performance Center, while limiting contact with others outside the complex.
But the affects of the novel coronavirus are growing, with the biggest impact so far coming in Wisconsin, with Saturday’s game at Nebraska in doubt due to an outbreak, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Starting quarterback Graham Mertz reportedly has had a positive coronavirus test confirmed and will be out 21 days, per Big Ten protocols. The conference set up more stringent standards to give more time for heart monitoring.
Mertz had an incredible debut in last week’s opener, throwing five touchdown passes for a quarterback rating of 273 in the 45-6 win over Illinois. He will be eligible to return a week before the Badgers play the Gophers for Paul Bunyan’s Axe in Madison on Nov. 28.
Morgan’s first opportunity to improve comes quickly, in Minnesota’s first of three Friday games. First up is Maryland, which lost its opener 43-3 to Northwestern. The Terrapins gave up 537 total yards, including 325 rushing.
When Morgan was asked about his early success, he steered his answer to the success the Gophers had against the Wolverines on the ground “We did some good things early on; we ran the ball pretty well,” he said.
Morgan’s first pass Saturday went to Ko Kieft for the senior tight end’s first career touchdown, and it fulfilled a preseason expectation under new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. to involve tight ends more in the passing game.
“I think it helps our offense a lot,” Morgan said. “It’s something people have been talking about for a long time, that we’ve been talking about for a long time, to get our tight ends more involved. Ko had some catches. Both of them were big time for us. So it’s good to see, it’s good for us to get more people involved in our offense, obviously.”
Of Morgan’s 31 pass attempts, tight ends were targeted seven times and running backs eight. Rashod Bateman was targeted 12 times, and the Big Ten receiver of the year finished with nine catches for 101 yards.
But Chris Autman-Bell, the Gophers’ No. 2 receiver, was targeted only twice, with one connecting for team-long 45-yard gain. Autman-Bell appeared open in the end zone early in the first quarter, but Morgan overthrew him. Morgan was off later on another throw in another red-zone drive that stalled.
Morgan credited Michigan for him not throwing to Autman-Bell more. “They did a good job in their coverage of disguises and stuff and taking away certain things,” he said.
During the fourth quarter, ESPN’s Chris Fowler said five of Morgan’s seven interceptions in 2019 came when looking for Bateman. Soon after that comment, Morgan threw a pass into coverage looking for Bateman that was intercepted.
“At the end of the day, things run through me, and I have to be better for our team to be successful, and I will be,” Morgan said. “That’s just kind of what we’re practicing, doing the little things and kind of getting back into it.”
The Gophers-Michigan game Saturday drew 5.1 million viewers, making it the most-watched college football game on ESPN’s networks this fall, ESPN said Tuesday. Detroit was the top market with a rating of 16.8, while Minneapolis-St. Paul was second at 13.5.