Issues remain, but Gopher offense finally clicks
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Gophers' beleaguered defense preoccupied primarily concerns for the program heading into Friday night's game against Indiana. Although issues remain following the Hoosiers' 22-point fourth-quarter comeback in Minnesota's 38-31 ...
MINNEAPOLIS - The Gophers’ beleaguered defense preoccupied primarily concerns for the program heading into Friday night’s game against Indiana.
Although issues remain following the Hoosiers’ 22-point fourth-quarter comeback in Minnesota’s 38-31 win, the U’s offense put together one of its best performances of the season.
Outside of its season opener against a soft New Mexico State team, the Gophers had next-best outputs in total yards (482) and points against the Hoosiers.
Behind backup quarterback Tanner Morgan, the Gophers produced their longest-timed touchdown drive of the season (seven minutes and 46 seconds) and followed it up with the longest-distance drive since 2003, going 99 yards for another score. These helped stake a 21-9 lead before the half.
Morgan replaced Zack Annexstad, who missed the game because of internal midsection and ankle injuries, and showed he’s not only capable of running the offense but is posing renewed questions to head coach P.J. Fleck about which freshman QB should start when both are healthy.
Fleck recalled the “hard” decision it was to pick Annexstad over Morgan at the end of training camp.
“We are going to evaluate everything,” Fleck said Friday, Oct. 26. “I’m really proud of his performance. Zack has played well in a lot of areas and the big thing is, too, Zack is not healthy and I want healthy people out there that can run our offense efficiently. That is one reason why we didn’t play him (Friday).”
Twice this week, Fleck alluded to Annexstad’s ankle injury being more severe than the program initially let on during nonconference play. Plus, Annexstad was briefly hospitalized after the 53-28 loss to Nebraska six days before Friday’s game.
Morgan’s 302 passing yards Friday were more than Annexstad produced in any of his six full games before his internal injury in the Nebraska loss. Morgan also benefited from Shannon Brooks’ season debut.
After a seven-game absence to start the year, Brooks rushed for 154 yards, with a touchdown and two lost fumbles. The senior, who tore the anterior circulate ligament in his left knee last winter, was lost for Friday’s game because of a right knee injury in the fourth quarter. He was going to be limited to four games with the new NCAA redshirt rule regardless of his latest knee injury. Fleck didn't comment on the severity of Brooks' injury Friday.
The Gophers were already without Rodney Smith, done for the season with a torn ACL, and missed this season’s leading rusher, Mohamed Ibrahim, who was out Friday with an undisclosed injury.
With Smith, Brooks, Ibrahim and Bryce Williams, Minnesota has had four rushers eclipse 100 yards in a game for the first time in school history.
“Now, I would like to have all those guys healthy and running and rotating and (the remaining one or two) not taking all those reps,” Fleck said.
Go-to receiver Tyler Johnson had his sixth 100-yard receiving game this season, which tied Ryan Thelwell’s school record in 1996. But he, too, went out in the third quarter with a less-severe injury, Fleck said.
Without playmakers in Brooks and Johnson, the U offense struggled. On six consecutive second-half possessions, Minnesota’s offensive drives went: fumble, punt, fumble, interception, punt and punt. This, coupled with the U defense giving up big plays, allowed Indiana to tie the score at 31-31 with four minutes left.
Fleck and offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca talked on the headsets after Indiana tied the score, and once U linebacker Blake Cashman’s tackle for lost yards on third down had given Minnesota another offensive possession.
“It wasn’t getting any better on offense,” Fleck said. “…Then coach Ciarrocca kind of said, ‘Hey, coach, you mind if we end this game?' "
Ciarrocca shared his plan. After exploiting the Hoosiers on short slants all game, the Gophers ran a play-action slant-and-go deep route to Rashod Bateman.
Fleck replied: “It’s going to work. It was the perfect play call in the perfect scenario.”
Morgan found Bateman in stride for a 67-yard touchdown that gave the Gophers a 38-31 lead they wouldn’t give up over the final 94 seconds.
“He burns him on the route, but then it’s the throw that keeps him in motion to continue to score,” Fleck said. “He didn’t have to come back, stop, underthrow. Great poise. Great protection.”