Morgan leads No. 11 Gophers past Wildcats
By Matt Carlson
EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) — Minnesota was eager to get back on the field — and it showed.
Tanner Morgan led No. 11 Minnesota to scores on its first three possessions and finished with four touchdown passes, and the Gophers bounced back from their first loss of the season with a 38-22 win over Northwestern on Saturday.
The Gophers (10-1, 7-1 Big Ten, No. 10 CFP), who lost at Iowa last week, clinched a share of the West Division title and their sixth season with 10 or more wins.
Following the loss to the Hawkeyes, Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said his team “wanted to get that taste out of their mouth so bad.”
The Gophers wasted no time.
“The word of the week was ‘respond,’ “ Fleck said. “We needed to, and they responded. That was a clear message from the beginning, that we had to start fast.
“That’s what championship football looks like — come out of the gate and put 21 points on the board like that.”
Morgan, the Big Ten’s leading passer, was sharp following a week in the concussion protocol after absorbing back-to-back sacks by the Hawkeyes. The redshirt sophomore, listed as questionable until Saturday morning, has thrown 26 touchdown passes this season to set a school record.
“We knew we had to come out fast, come out firing,” Morgan said. “We always talk about starting fast, accelerating in the middle and finishing strong.”
Fleck said Morgan was almost his old self, despite an abbreviated week of practice.
“Got to give him credit with the limited amount of reps he had to be able to play like he did,” Fleck said. “There were some things he was just a little off on today.”
Morgan threw three TD passes to Rashod Bateman and one to Tyler Johnson against Northwestern (2-9, 0-8). Bateman finished with 78 receiving yards and Johnson had 125, giving Minnesota its first pair of 1,000-yard receivers in season.
Rodney Smith finished with 77 rushing yards to give him 1,063 for the season.
Morgan zipped a 19-yard TD pass to Bateman in the corner of the end zone to end a 10-play, 56-yard drive on Minnesota’s first possession.
After Shannon Brooks ran in from 9 yards, Morgan hit Bateman for a 10-yard TD and 21-0 lead. Bateman’s other TD catch was a 7-yarder in the third quarter.
With quarterback Aidan Smith sidelined (hand), Northwestern turned to Hunter Johnson, who hadn’t started since the season opener. Andrew Marty entered early in the second quarter after Johnson went 0 for 2 and was sacked three times.
Marty threw a TD pass to Jace James and ran for two scores.
“(Johnson) was the most healthy quarterback we had to start the game who had experience,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When Hunter went down, it was Andrew’s opportunity.
“He was pretty efficient, I’m just happy for him.”
Joe Gaziano sacked Morgan for a safety early in the second quarter to get Northwestern on the board. Gaziano added another sack to give him 29 for his career, a school record.
Minnesota: Morgan seems primed to lead Minnesota into the postseason. His third touchdown pass in the game eclipsed Adam Weber’s season mark of 24 set in 2007. The Gophers have their first 10-plus win season since 2003. Minnesota’s previous four seasons with 10 wins or more were in 1900, 1903, 1904 and 1905. This is Minnesota’s first 10-win year in regular-season play since 1905.
Northwestern: Since the Big Ten started playing a championship game in 2011, no team until 2019 Northwestern finished last in its division after playing in the title game the previous year. The Wildcats are in danger of going winless in conference play for the first time since the 1998 team went 0-8 in Gary Barnett’s final season.
Minnesota has seven wins in Big Ten play for the first time. The Gophers host Wisconsin next week with a spot in the conference title game on the line if the Badgers beat Purdue late Saturday.
“It’s really awesome to have this opportunity,” Morgan said. “We’re just going to do everything we can to go 1-0 this week.”
Two of Bateman’s TD catches were nifty grabs when he barely remained in the corner of the endzone.
“First the guy is able to get open and create space,” Morgan said. “But a little toe-tap, it looked like a ballerina or something.”
Bateman didn’t mind his QB comparing him to a dancer.
“I really didn’t know where I was on the field,” Bateman said. “I was just toe-tapping and hoping I was in the end zone.”
Minnesota: Hosts Wisconsin to end the regular season.
Northwestern: Visits Illinois.